The Forest at Hampstead Theatre
With stage hits such as The Height of the Storm, The Son and The Father (which was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Anthony Hopkins), Florian Zeller continues to be hot property. The writer now takes audiences into The Forest – his latest offering that makes its world premiere at Hampstead Theatre. The play is expertly translated by long-time collaborator Christopher Hampton.
Pierre (Toby Stephens) has a doting wife and family, friends, an esteemed career and a woman on the side. It is this affair that triggers a breakdown, as the guilt-ridden surgeon is forced to confront the consequences of his dishonesty. Paul McGann also portrays Pierre, albeit a more distant version. This prompts the question of whether he is simply another aspect of our protagonist’s personality – an alter-ego acting out his desires and fantasies, perhaps. Part psychological thriller, part fantasy drama, in typical Zeller fashion, nothing is quite as it seems.
Anna Fleischle’s set is divided into three – the family home, a room with a bed and an office. Initially detached to represent the protagonist’s idea of conveniently categorising each aspect of his life, the three compartments connect in the climax as he and his world become undone.
One never quite knows where to look, constantly surprised by various tweaks and additions, such as an ever-growing array of flowers swathing the family home. Seamless scene transitions, aided by Hugh Vanstone’s lighting and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s sound design, contribute to the tense, foreboding atmosphere that permeates throughout. Is it style over substance? No. But there is less to excavate here than in other works by the playwright.
Zeller often carves out multifaceted female characters, as evidenced in The Mother, for instance. It is therefore somewhat surprising that the women here are thinly drawn. Millie Brady as the daughter is permitted little time on stage; by venting her upset about her cheating partner to her father, his journey begins but it leaves the daughter feeling like little more than a plot device.
An underused Gina McKee more than delivers as the wife, offering a nuanced, natural performance that again leaves viewers wanting more. Angel Coulby, as the girlfriend, is given the most to do and clearly has fun with the role, as she flirts with bunny-boiler tendencies while at the same time commanding empathy, despite being the “other woman”. But the spotlight is cast on Pierre, with both Stephens and McGann mining the most from their material – although, arguably, the latter’s intriguing incarnation could have been gifted further exploration.
Those familiar with Zeller will know how he likes to play with timeframes and trickery, leading his audience one way before sharply taking them another. The structure here consists of repeated scenes, with only subtle differences. It allows the audience to look closer, investigating who the protagonist is, although, on occasion, our attention slightly wanes. The promise of a fulfilling climax carries us through, but unfortunately it never quite arrives. Yes, the ending is powerful and well executed, but the audience doesn’t depart the theatre enveloped in the awe and exhilaration they have become accustomed to with this writer.
It may not be Zeller’s most memorable effort, however, under Jonathan Kent’s direction, the cast and creatives elevate proceedings enough to make this an enjoyable and largely engaging evening of escapism.
Photo: The Other Richard
The Forest is at Hampstead Theatre from 9th February until 12th March 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch a trailer for the production here: