The Height of the Storm at Wyndham’s Theatre
The frenzied modern lifestyle pushes away thoughts about the later stages of life, embracing the carpe diem principle. Florian Zeller’s new play The Height of the Storm offers instead a poetic refocus, building upon the extraordinary performances of Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins.
Renowned writer André and his wife Madeline have been together for half a century. During a weekend visit from their two daughters, flowers arrive, a beautiful German woman alludes to a special friendship with André and there is talk of estate agents. Anne and Elise often discuss their parents in the third person, as if they are not there, or unable to fully understand their conversations. The lines between memory, imagination and the present are very thin.
At the beginning the situation is rather confusing, that is until the disconnected behaviour of André points to the fact that he is affected by dementia. By bringing the protagonists’ recollections to the same level as imagined family dialogues, Zeller makes feelings and reality very fluid, merged and mixed within his emotional script. The truth is piercing when viewed alongside the tender and affectionate relationship that the couple shared. Soft and evocative, the writing leaves a lot to ponder. The production has a measured, slow pace, leaving plenty of space for afterthought once the curtain falls.
There are other short stories – disseminated like anecdotes and making the play even more complicated – that are picked up and dropped, leaving questions about their possible connection with the main narrative and a more universal meaning. Loyalty, at the forefront, is cross-examined with freedom and forgiveness. What has this couple really gone through? What did the wife know? What secrets remain untold?
To see the imposing figure of Pryce walking unsteadily with trembling hands is enough to shake stony hearts among the audience. Even in his fragility, he is so uniquely intense. Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley play contrasting characters as his two daughters, conflicted and pained in the face of his illness.
Atkins is utterly superb. In her sheer pragmatism and tender care for her husband, she shows herself to be far stronger than her slender body would suggest. She is the one keeping together both the house and the family, and also the one bringing up much-needed, sporadic puns. Her performance is suave and unfaltering.
Though at first, this production is not easily absorbed – playing as it does with the fog of the mind – The Height of the Storm leaves us with a lasting bittersweet taste, the convoluted writing fortunately finding a good balance with the compelling acting.
Photo: Hugo Glendinning
The Height of the Storm is at Wyndham’s Theatre from 2nd October until 1st December 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.