Magazine article The Spectator

Friends Reunited

Magazine article The Spectator

Friends Reunited

Article excerpt

Embers Duke of York Rotozaza Bullion Rooms The Shadow Box Southwark Playhouse Sandor Marai is one of those names that makes reviewers fidget uncomfortably.

I've never heard of him, nor can I say with any confidence what country he's from - or what continent. A Finn, a Maori, an Eskimo? It turns out he's Hungarian and his literary career follows the familiar Mittel European blueprint. He was once a great genius, then he was forgotten, then he shot himself, then he was rediscovered and became a great genius again. Written in 1940, Embers is his masterpiece. But it's a novel, not a play, and it seems extraordinary that Michael Blakemore and his adaptor Christopher Hampton didn't run a mile from this convoluted material.

Embers is a narrow and extremely static book in which two octogenarians meet before death to discuss friendship, betrayal, a long-dead woman and the day when a deer-hunt nearly went wrong. Trying to adapt this for the stage is barmy. The events are inconclusive and occurred in the past, the love interest has popped her clogs and two old boys are so ancient they can't stand up without creaking. But the intractable bolus has been elucidated and transformed, by some miracle, into an unusual and compelling piece of theatre.

On press night Peter Davison's soaring design drew a gasp of amazed pleasure from the audience. True, most of them had been guzzling rocket-fuel for an hour before curtain up, but their response was justified. The nobleman Henrik's castle is a magnificent composition: creamy buttressed walls blackened with cracks and cobwebs, and a slender central column supporting a vast vaulted canopy. Lightness and solidity are harmonised with amazing beauty and grace. In fact, the wow-factor is so intoxicating that Jeremy Irons, as Henrik, does nothing for several minutes but potter about the stage while the audience gazes enviously at his sitting-room.

Irons, speaking through a small mulberry bush of beard, is perfectly cast as the aged army veteran betrayed by his best friend. And Patrick Malahide is marvellous as the pensive, faintly creepy ex-patriot Konrad. Having crossed half the world to reach the dinner engagement, Konrad accepts an aperitif from Henrik and they start talking. And that's all they do. Talk.

Michael Blakemore has stripped away all inessentials from his staging. …

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