Donmar Warehouse, London
As Thomas, Ebba and their two children walk on the stage of the Donmar Warehouse, they are confronted with a slide, in more ways than one. Tim Price’s new play Force majeure is based on Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film of the same name, in which an Alpine holiday reveals ravine-sized cracks in a seemingly happy family.
As in the movie, eating a bite to eat in a picturesque mountain restaurant turns into a nightmare when a controlled avalanche (meant to spread snow safely) goes awry and threatens to bury them all in tons of snow. As the mighty wall of white bears descends on them, Ebba (played by Lyndsey Marshal) throws her arms protectively around the children. However, Thomas (Rory Kinnear) grabs his phone and does a runner. To say things get icy afterward will be gentle.
One of the great joys of Michael Longhurst’s production is the way it cheerfully rises to the great challenge of creating an Alpine landscape on a pocket-sized stage. Jon Bausor’s set, illuminated with cold glow by Lucy Carter, fills the space with a pristine white slope that serves as the snowy mountains and soft carpets of the hotel bar and bedroom. Cool, dayglo-clad skiers soar down a ski slope, burst through space and zip past audience members, or glide to a halt with enviable singing chorus (choreography by Sasha Milavic Davies).
In contrast, the uncertainty of the family quartet, as they sway in clumsy ski boots over the tilt stage, trying to control skis, poles and runaway bags, emphasizes the central metaphor while contributing to the dark comedy of the situation. The avalanche itself is terrifying – a huge thunderous rumble of white mist and chaos pouring across the stage and out into the auditorium.
The palpable cold that rolls over the stalls as it passes serves to reinforce one of the questions of the story: what would you yourself have faced with potential extinction, what would you have done? It’s a dilemma spreading its icy fingers in the cast as Thomas’ old friend Mats (Sule Rimi) and his new girlfriend Jenny (Siena Kelly) show up for a casual drink, to meet Ebba, drunk and glowing, and Thomas, grumpy and defensive. The guests ‘desperate semaphore behind their hosts’ backs is both funny and toe-curling and before long they are knee-deep in frozen waste of their own.
Meanwhile, the emotional avalanche triggered by Thomas’ cowardice takes pace and weight. For Marshal’s excellent Ebba, it’s not the act itself, but the cover-up that sends her off the track as Thomas tries to re-frame the event. Marshal deftly demonstrates how legitimate anger flanks with self-righteousness. Kinnear is excellent at exploring the paths of self-pity and grumpy defiance of the cornered male human being and at conveying how there is a crippling self-contempt behind it all. The two children (played by Florence and Henry Hunt at the performance I saw) tip of solipsistic indifference in sincere fear that their parents will split up.
It’s a clever exploration of relationships, family dynamics, gender expectations and a certain kind of fragile masculinity. It also touches on the angry phenomenon – all too often in public life – of lack of accountability: it is Thomas’ refusal to apologize for the actual damage. And it’s all served up with a nice side dish of observational humor over holidays: the bickering in public and the pressure of sudden closeness. “We’m on vacation, we’re meant to have a good time,” Kinnear’s Thomas cried irritably at one point.
It is more pointed and less subtle than the original. But it’s still terribly delicious. And it offers the great pleasure of a company trying to perform the impossible (as done Touch the Gap and Life of PI) and an appeal to the imagination of the audience to meet them on the slopes.
Until February 5, donmarwarehouse.com
Hampstead Theater, London
We move to a softer landscape for Nation, Nell Leyshon’s beautiful, seductive play at Hampstead Theater about the meeting between Cecil Sharp and Louie Hooper: a meeting that would start Sharp’s influential collection of English folk music and songs.
The focus is rural Somerset in 1903, evoked in Rose Revitt’s design for Roxana Silbert’s intimate production through minimal props and glowing autumn colors. Sharp, away from London in search of traditional songs, runs into Louie Hooper when she comes to work as a maid, and with her a wealth of music transmitted from her mother. Before long, Sharp encouraged Louie to sing for him so he could record her songs. Louie was fascinated at first – captured by the characteristics of the piano and the way in which melody can be captured in music notation on a page. But her enchantment ceases when she hears how transcription can simplify a sound and evaporates completely when Sharp presents her with the resulting book of songs, which has now been “cleaned up” and processed by him.
The arguments shoot back and forth. Sharp’s archive promises to preserve tunes that would otherwise be lost for time and to provide a wealth of English songs for all to share. His dedication indeed left that legacy. But does his striving also amount to appropriation? And by recording the tunes, does he lose their protein quality? Louie is upset about what she sees as theft of the songs she learned at her mother’s knee. How do you preserve an oral tradition and to whom do those songs belong?
Leyshon, meanwhile, outlines broader issues, such as industrialization and its impact on traditional lifestyles. Machines threaten to put Louie and her sister Lucy, both glovemakers, out of work and encourage John (Ben Allen), Lucy’s lover, to emigrate. They also suffocated the domestic production line where songs were passed from mothers to daughters. And while Sharp dreams of a new, “pure” and “English” music, Leyshon points to the beginning dangers in romanticized nationalism and the complexities of origin. Louie tells Sharp that her mother learned these “English” songs from her own traveling gypsy father who collected them from everywhere.
Some of the arguments are a bit too blunt, especially in the second industry. But Leyshon’s playing remains ambivalent and there is a sweet, lyrical quality to it. It also captures something elusive and true: the transcendent and transforming power of music. With all his scholarship, Simon Robson’s urban Sharp could not match Louie’s easy musicality and natural gift. When she demonstrates exactly how a rising note captures the surge of spring juice in the forest, he can only approach the chord on the keyboard next to her. Mariam Haque holds the stage as Louie: at first shy, serious and confident, she seems to glow when she sings and her brooding anger subsides. She is complemented by Sasha Frost as Lucy, her sparkling, more pragmatic sister. A rich, tender drama about tradition and progress, culture and identity, loss and belonging.
Until February 5, hampsteadtheatre.com