The Breath of Life
Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield
It was a brave decision by Daniel Evans to include three plays by David Hare in his first season as Artistic Director at Sheffield Theatres. The retrospective of Hare's work has been completely justified, and it has been fascinating and instructive to see three of his plays in quick succession, to become more familiar with his writing style , and to see similar themes developed in plays spanning more than two decades.
The Breath of Life presents the overnight meeting between Frances and Madeleine, wife and mistress, respectively, of the absent Martin, who in any case has left both of them for a younger model. Intellectual Madeleine demands to know why Frances, wife, mother, and more recently, novelist, has engineered this meeting, and, suspiciously, thinks it is only to gather material for her next novel. This raises large issues about the relationship between Life and Art. After a long night of suspicious wrangling and revelation of intimate details of each woman's relationship with the missing Martin, it transpires that what Frances is really looking forward to is 'closure' and the meeting with Madeleine effectively achieves this.
More interestingly, the play echoes an important theme that appears in the two previous plays shown in the David Hare Season, that of thwarted or disappointed idealism. In this case the idealism relates, not to post war optimism (Plenty) or the failure of the Church to respond to the real needs of the community (Racing Demon) but to love and personal relationships.
It is a pleasure to see two actors at the height of their powers performing this two-hander with authority, sensitivity, wit and intelligence. Patricia Hodge, as the mistress, and Isla Blair, as the wife, present fully rounded characters, who are well differentiated and completely convincing. Each actor makes the most of the many narratives embedded in the script, and of the frequent flashes of wit at the expense of the Isle of Wight, American eating habits, suburban life, and much more. An interesting stylistic feature of this play, which emerges clearly in the performances, is that Martin is often represented through reported speech. This provides the women with the chance to 'act out' their erstwhile partner by mimicking his voice and physical mannerisms; and has the added benefit of effectively adding a third character to the cast.
Peter Gill's direction is clearly evident in the pace and pointing of key moments in the script by the use of light and sound effects. The realistic set, designed by Alex Eales, is a convincing, open plan living room in a Victorian terrace, with a huge window looking out on to the sea front. The clutter, and other evidence of a life independently lived is appropriate to what we learn abut Madeleine, and a contrast to what we discover about Frances' suburban life in Blackheath. Effective lighting, including a flashing neon sign outside the window, adds to the desolate atmosphere of a down at heel seaside resort.
In the introduction to the programme Daniel Evans talks about David Hare's ability 'to fuse the personal and the political through great storytelling, intriguing characterisation and a razor-sharp wit'. The Breath of Life amply justifies that description.
"The Breath of Life" continues at The Lyceum until Saturday 26 February.
Reviewer: Velda Harris