The Height of the Storm

The Height of the Storm

I’ve been to see this new play by Florian Zeller – twice. It moved me so much I’d even go again. I saw it in Richmond and then at Wyndham’s in town.  Same cast, same set, same sublime performances from Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce.

They play a couple, Madeleine and Andre, who’ve been married for 50 years and have two 40-something daughters, both self-absorbed and often irritating, especially to their mother. The setting is the large kitchen of the couple’s home. Through an alcove at the back you can glimpse high walls lined with books; Andre is a celebrated writer.

There’s been a death but who has died and when is not immediately clear. You’re never sure if you’re in present or past time, in the real world or inside Andre’s mind, an intelligent, literary man being depleted by cognitive chaos. You think it’s Madeleine who’s died but then she appears, flesh and blood, with her shopping bag of fresh mushrooms and biscotti. She starts to peel the mushrooms for one of his favourite dishes and my assumptions about what’s taking place evaporate. Were we back to a time before she died? Or was I seeing the delusions of Andre, conjuring up his dead wife?

The daughters have come for the funeral and also to consider the consequences of their mother’s death as they believe their father cannot cope alone. They are uncomfortable, sharp with one another. That they both have relationship crises of their own is gently intimated. Another woman appears whom Andre knew in the past; the nature of their relationship is ambiguous. Was she his lover and his muse?  A suggestion of intimacy edges into the dialogue and then is withdrawn leaving doubt. You can see it on Madeleine’s mesmerising face, the flicker of a question: “How well do I know this husband of 50 years?”.

So many themes unfold subtly, imperceptibly in this strange and profoundly moving piece. I was touched by the inescapable tragedy of the ending. Her final words: “I’ll always be here. I’m not going anywhere” are uttered quietly, slowly. Impossible promises. And then the light goes out on her and he’s left on stage alone.

The play is short enough to be staged in one act. With no interval to interrupt the flow, somehow you can immerse yourself completely. The first time I saw it I was captivated but also uncertain that I had grasped all the nuances and time shifts. As the last scene played out, the couple alone on stage in a final conversation about love, attachment and loss, I found I was weeping. Not uncontrollably; just quietly. Others in the audience, including my companion, seemed not to be moved and this intrigued me. What had I seen, understood, or misunderstood that made me engage so emotionally in the play while others did not?

Perhaps because the play resonates with themes of loss that have been a preoccupation of late. Not just loss through death but the gradual, creeping loss of mind and self that Andre captured so vividly. Mostly, though, it was a response to perfect, seamless acting. When Eileen Atkins is onstage it’s real life. It’s as if she’s not acting, she is so wholly credible. She draws you in with every gesture and every word until you’re barely aware of the stage or the people around you. It’s just you and her and the handful of other characters. You’re in a corner of the room, watching and being moved to tears.


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