One way or another we all get screwed.
I’m not sure why this 1981 play by Peter Nichols has been revived. I don’t know whether thirty years ago it had something new to say about adultery and marital breakdown, but here it performs as just another fractious tale of a middle-aged man who falls for a much younger woman, resulting in his wife trying to win him back via a futile suicide bid. So far, so clichéd. There’s also scant plot development and a second half that is more or less a repeat of the first.
James is an art restorer and has been married to Eleanor, a soprano, for twenty-five years. James’s best friend Arthur has recently died, and his young (and very attractive) widow, Kate, has turned to James and Eleanor in her ‘grief’. Kate is the forbidden fruit which James cannot resist plucking. She’s the sort of woman who turns up to her husband’s funeral in purple silk and wears scent ‘you could cut with a knife’. To James she is something exciting and dangerous, a whole world away from his unsurprising, predictable wife, whose response to his offer of sex is ‘What you call a little nap requires a long nap afterwards.’
A rather unbelievable device is used to expose James’s adultery: Kate persuades him to write her a love letter which is discovered by Agnes, Albert’s first wife and Eleanor’s friend. Only once Agnes delivers this billet-doux to Eleanor does Passion Play offer something worth watching, for Nichols chooses to explore Eleanor and James’s inner thoughts by creating two more characters to voice the very words that go unspoken. These alter egos (or alternative consciousnesses) voice what the dominant selves are too proud or restrained to utter aloud, leading to some wonderful comedic moments, as well as a few of painful, brutal honesty.
Once or twice Nichols moves towards offering us intriguing insights into the minds of this warring couple. For example, Eleanor’s ‘alter’, Nell, admits to wanting to be the other woman so her husband can come home for a crafty fuck, and at one point looks upon James’s affair as giving their marriage ‘a shot in the arm’. Nell reveals that there is much more to Eleanor than meets the eye: she’s intelligent, witty, cynical, and often bitter and pointed. Yet Nichols does not push this far enough, instead lapsing into the well-worn portrait of a middle-aged woman who discovers her husband has been cheating on her: she moans about her world ‘caving in’, she can’t stop thinking that he’s still cheating after he has promised he’s stopped (he hasn’t), and, frustratingly unable to let go, suffers from anger, exasperation, paranoia and despair before acting out that one last cry for help.
If Nichols flirts with novelty in his portrayal of Eleanor, he clings to tried-and-tested with James: both he and his ‘alter’, Jim, think only about sex and desire, are obsessed with the new and want to know why they can’t have their cake and eat it too (‘Why won’t you let me have both?’, Jim whines at one point). James is such a dull, commonplace example of a bored fifty-something man that it’s never convincing why Kate ruthlessly pursues him or why Eleanor fights so hard to keep him to herself.
Luckily, the acting in this production is excellent. Mastering the tricky dialogue requires great skill as there’s lots of simultaneous speech, rapid exchanges and swift movement from verbal sparring matches to quieter introspection, and the actors playing the four main roles prove themselves more than capable. Zoë Wanamaker deftly handles both comic and dramatic moments, and manages to give her character something of an arc as she moves from upbeat, energetic and funny at the start, her eyes twinkling with passion and her body in constant motion, to weary and lethargic by the end as she’s finally overwhelmed by her husband’s folly and realisation that she is second best. Samantha Bond is wonderful; both spiky and dry, with spot-on comic timing, and yet pained and broken. Even when quiet on stage she conveys the idea of Eleanor’s alter as both protective of and frustrated by her outward self. Owen Teale and Oliver Cotton play James and Jim respectively. Both give solid performances: Teale’s James is believable as the man who initially feels and acts like the cat that got the cream, only for the cream to curdle as he finds himself in a mess of his own making, while Cotton’s Jim is particularly good at conveying James’s inner schoolboy fantasies and clearly relishes every sardonic remark offered to him. Siân Thomas provides excellent support as the bitter and world-weary Agnes, exasperated by Eleanor’s initial inability to see what she predicted from a mile away, while Annabel Scholey is suitably lithe and seductive as Kate.
The bleak subject-matter is echoed in Hildegard Bechtler’s starkly modern design, in which sharp corners abound and nearly everything is white, barring a few splashes of colour. Fergus O’Hare was perhaps a touch heavy-handed with the sound – too many loud bursts of Mozart’s Requiem – but director David Leveaux has both choreographed this production well and brought out confident performances from his cast. Ultimately, however, a strong cast cannot mask the fact that Passion Play has a poor second half which rapidly loses both momentum and our interest. It is also frustrating that Nichols’s play rarely dares to move beyond the routine, ultimately failing to offer real insight into the effects of adultery, despite the potential offered by the arguably innovative use of the alter ego.