Peter Nichols' Passion Play is one of three classic plays about adultery among the London intellectual middle classes, dating from the period around 1980. The other two are Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing and Harold Pinter's Betrayal, both of which I have seen more than once in excellent revivals in London. Passion Play is the only one of the trio that I have never seen.
The greatest single feature of this revival by David Leveaux (who has also directed The Real Thing and Betrayal) is a terrific central performance by Zoe Wanamaker as Eleanor the betrayed wife, visibly disintegrating under the impact of her husband's infidelity. It's the best thing I have seen her do (and that includes her performances in Much Ado About Nothing and His Girl Friday at the National). Owen Teale is excellent as her errant husband James, a mild-mannered and generally monogamous picture restorer, who is seduced by one of Eleanor's best friends, the lovely young Kate. Annabel Scholey plays the icy temptress to perfection in a series of seductive dresses, culminating in an all-furs-and-no-knickers moment. Sian Thomas is Agnes, whose late husband was also a victim of Kate's Formula One seduction techniques, and is keen to get her revenge.
Stoppard's adultery play is about theatre and reality, using a play within a play to explore the ideas of truth and falsehood. Pinter takes adultery as the starting point but, in reversing the sequence of the story of an affair, he ends up somewhere else entirely, investigating friendship, loyalty, memory and the relationship between past and present. Nichols' Passion Play is more straightforward -- a story which begins and finishes with adultery. His original twist is to supply the two central characters Eleanor and James with doubles Nell and Jim, who voice their inner thoughts. Samantha Bond and Oliver Cotton do this very convincingly. In the second half of the play, once the cat has been let out of the bag, the barriers between the protagonists and their alter egos dissolve, and by the end they are effectively sharing the roles. It's fascinating to watch, but in a way it distracts from the intensity of the action. Hildegard Bechtler's set is minimalist in the extreme, moving the play further away from mundane realism.
The flaw (at least for me) in Passion Play is the character of Kate, who is a caricature of a bob-haired femme fatale, looking very like Louise Brooks. Her up-front attitude to sex seems to be over-simplified, and her seduction of James is so one-sided that it reeks of male fantasy. Crucially, she has no alter ego to voice her thoughts, and so she lacks any inner life. This isn't Annabel Scholey's fault at all.
I also feel that, while this play deserves its reputation as a classic, when set against Betrayal and The Real Thing, it lacks the extra dimensions which Pinter and Stoppard explore. I always try to ask myself not just 'What's it about?' but 'What's it REALLY about?' Passion Play is an excellent play about the corrosive effects of adultery on a middle-aged couple, but somehow it's not a play about life in the broader sense.
Given the tip-top casting and the good reviews this production at the Duke of York's Theatre has garnered, I was surprised on Tuesday evening to find the theatre only half full. This is disappointing for the actors, but may be an inevitable consequence of the West End's recent hike in ticket prices to unaffordable levels. I shall be returning to this subject shortly.