James Saunders has written a wonderful play in which his middle-aged
protagonist talks over an affair some time ago with his best friend's wife,
against the harrowing backdrop of a near-fatal motor crash; as the evening
progresses and his tongue is loosened by drink, the character comes more
directly to face the questions and cowardices at the core of his life.
The play is called Bodies, and Saunders wrote it in 1977. Now he has written it again and entitled it Retreat.
Where Bodies revolved around a dinner-party between two cross-adulterous
couples, Retreat is pared down to a two-hander. The interval of
time since this affair is a fraction of the earlier play's decade, but
is here packed with traumatic events: Harold's wife has died and his daughter
been crippled in a car crash, his not-quite-mistress and her husband killed
in an air accident, and their daughter Hannah gone missing on the Indian
sub-continent. Hannah's unheralded arrival one night at the Welsh cottage
to which Harold has retreated is the dramatic spur for these one hundred
minutes of continuous dialogue.
This is Saunders' particular territory, and Sam Walters is intimately familiar with it after a writer-director relationship spanning more than 20 years and as many productions. Retreat is a play of words and ideas: the only action is that of facing one's own past and present. Although the interplay sometimes seems forced, it is never arid.
Harold's profession as a writer furnishes him with an easy avenue of retreat into self-conscious aphorism, prowling around the edge of his personal conflicts before tackling them sideways-on on the second or third subsequent whisky – Saunders is an unparalleled master of progressive drunkenness, eschewing the "in vino immediate and complete veritas" approach of lesser writers.
Tim Pigott-Smith is ill at ease in the early stages of Harold's polite bewilderment, waving his hands too often simply for the sake of something to do. Once the situation is established, however, he rides well the switchback of posturing, stonewalling, defensive aggression and outright violence (both verbal and physical), finally arriving at a central point of stillness for his climactic Potteresque confession.
Victoria Hamilton as Hannah shows a remarkable skill at disquieting interrogative gazes. She arrives (smelling – in a glorious touch in the intimate Orange Tree space – of patchouli oil), announcing, "I've come to disturb your peace," which she achieves both by her insistent questioning of Harold and by her very presence, as an example of a world he cannot understand. Hannah's (occasionally a little too articulate) determination to set Harold's agenda is the catalyst for him to examine the reasons behind his fierce resistance to such an event.
The ghost of erotic possibilities flits several times across the stage, played with admirable lack of emphasis, and to be dismissed almost in passing at the close – a dramatic security blanket which the piece consciously disdains. It does, however, resort to the ploy of an ambiguous ending suggesting that the entire confrontation may simply have been a confessional fantasy of Harold's. Saunders is better than this; nor does he really need to pile quite so many crises into the back-story, ensuring that both his characters are almost utterly bereft in human terms.
Walters has staged a beautiful production of a fine work which displays Saunders' mastery at creating characters whose lacerating humour is a vain defence against both tragedy and vacuum. Nevertheless, both writer and director have passed this way before.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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