PYRENEES
Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1
Opened 30 March, 2005
****

Playwright David Greig is almost praeternaturally gifted with an understanding of how to approach his dramatic subjects indirectly. He sidles up to them, regards them sidelong, makes a few oblique comments... and before we know it, we're in the middle of a rich, deep symphony of resonances. He is a perfect choice to participate in Paines Plough's "This Other England" series of plays about language and identity, and Pyrenees is the finest work so far in that strand.

A youngish woman is awkwardly interviewing an older man on a hotel terrace. She turns out to be a British consular official, sent to determine whether he is her business; for he, we discover, is amnesiac, found in the snows of the Pyrenees with no idea who he is except that he's probably British. The hotel proprietor is playing odd games of his own about nationality; the hotel's only other guest, a middle-aged woman on a walking tour, turns up towards the end of the first act with startling (if hardly surprising) news about the man.

I cannot begin to convey the El Dorado of nuance in Greig's script, Vicky Featherstone's production and the quartet of performances led by Hugh Ross and Paola Dionisotti. It begins with a tentative forensic exercise, as the man examines his accent and idiolect for hints about where he might have come from, and we realise that even casual words can open up entire histories, real or speculative. Anna from the consulate, meanwhile, tries to be non-directive, a clean slate on which identity can be laid, but gradually reveals her own proclivities and ambitions which she tries to realise through her own words. In the pivotal second-act scene in which Vivienne (Dionisotti) recounts the travels of Keith (who may or may not be the man played by Ross), the events recounted are objectively absurd a fiftysomething bourgeois man riding with a gang of Norwegian Hell's Angels! but become real and powerful in the telling.

Individual words and phrases sound echoes an hour or more later, as characters lament, "We never talked" and "If I'd only read the signs." Neil Warmington's set works in the same way as Greig's text: a wall of louvered panels lets through slits of light or opens unexpectedly, a floor of clouded mirror throws back intriguing mottlings. Even the offstage gendarme is named after theatrical obscurantist Bernard-Marie Koltès. An altogether fascinating piece of work.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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