The Forest – Play
Hampstead Theatre, London
15th Feb 2022
Phil Ross reports on the World Premiere of Academy Award Winner Florian Zeller’s latest work – The Forest.
Florian Zeller is a multi-award-winning novelist, playwright and director whose most recent accolade is the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Father (2020). Starring Anthony Hopkins who won Best Actor, and Olivia Coleman, Zeller’s directorial debut, received six nominations including Best Picture at the 93rd Academy Awards. Extraordinarily, the French playwright has chosen to premier The Forest, his latest work in a foreign language, in a foreign city, and at a theatre that previously hasn’t produced any of his work.
It’s a leap of faith in part encouraged by trust in his long-standing writing partner and translator Christopher Hampton. It consists of a series of cascading vignettes moving around three separate settings built on the stage, a living room, a bedroom and an office.
To begin, the central character, a surgeon, played by Toby Stephens, arrives at his plush home to be greeted by his wife, (Gina McKee). He must comfort their distraught daughter, (Millie Bradie), who’s “been crying all evening”. She has discovered that for months, her boyfriend has been seeing another woman. “He was lying to me every day. We were trying for a baby”, she weeps, “it’s disgusting”. It gets worse, all of their friends knew about the boyfriend’s infidelity and, ashamed and humiliated, she is adamant “it’s all over”.
But to the horror of his wife and daughter, he insensitively tries to downplay the affair, asking if she could forgive, or understand? He suggests that “maybe it wasn’t very important, not that serious”, and we’re left with a sense of unease about a flawed man with a seemingly successful and otherwise idyllic life.
The lights go up for scene two, and a bedroom appears suddenly from the dark, built and suspended above the living room set where the family story just occurred.
In this new window, two lovers played by Angel Coulby and Paul McGann happily cavort, post-coitus, bare-breasted and carefree. He’s happy just looking at her. “I’ve never felt this good with anyone”, she says. But the drama is quickly revealed; “do you and your wife still make love?” she inquires. “It’s different, it’s a habit” he says, “I’d like you to be exclusive to me”, she demands. A jealous mistress and a married man, lights go down.
We discover that our surgeon, who is called Pierre, makes official pharmaceutical assessments for the government, and has a dubious relationship with a shady scientist called Krawzensky. But the everyday world of these complex characters is quickly turned upside down when actors switch roles and scenes are repeated with slightly different lines.
There’s a bloody murder, surreal police interviews, silent telephone calls, Pinteresque knocks on the door and Banquo’s ghost scene from Macbeth. Combined with the nightmarish Man in Black played by Finbar Lynch, the result is at times an absurdist whodunnit, perhaps a whydidtheydoit?
In The Father which grossed over $28m, Zeller explores the labyrinth of the human mind through the prism of dementia, where neither Hopkins’ character nor the audience can be really sure what is real and what is imagined. It’s a proven formula for him, and perhaps an English-language premier creates a slightly faster route to dollar.
As another place to get lost, The Forest is an analogy for the mind. Here Zeller invites us to take a consequential look at ourselves through the different prisms of lies, guilt and denial, where the play’s explanation and resolution are left open to interpretation. If the intent was to create introspection and discomfort, then he has succeeded. But I’m also uncomfortable with the portrayal of women as victims, wives or wanting babies or as hysterical, potential bunny-boilers. While men are portrayed as powerful, influential careerists. It seems rather boorish to me, but if I’m mistaken and The Forest is a feminist diatribe about toxic French masculinity, then I apologise.
In Zeller’s defence, the daughter does ask of men: “What’s going on in their heads? What is this compulsion to use us like this? To abuse us? To prey on us?”
Politics aside, congratulations to Jonathan Kent, Anna Fleischle and everyone at the Hampstead Theatre; the sets are beautiful, tasteful interiors, while the lighting and soundtrack were striking and subtle in all the right places. As you might expect with such a distinguished, quality cast and crew, the performance and production were flawless.
The Forest runs until 12th March 2022 at:
Photography by The Other Richard
All words by Phil Ross.More writing by Phil can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.