The Breath of Life
Theatre Royal Haymarket
There has been an incredible amount of hype in advance of Howard Davies' production of David Hare's latest play. This is largely because two theatrical dames are appearing; as the wife and lover of an unseen man.
The chance to see either Maggie Smith or Judi Dench in the flesh is special, the two together is almost unprecedented. The tills have been ringing and soon, there will be no tickets available until Christmas when the run ends (21st December).
The play takes place in Madeleine Palmer's house on the Isle of Wight. She is an art historian and for twenty-five years had a lover, an advocate called Martin Beale. She is sassy and witty and seemingly has been fulfilled in her career and in love. Into her house marches Martin's wronged and finally deserted wife, the unheroic Frances.
Frances is a popular novelist and suffers constant jibes about her profession (e.g. she writes as a substitute for living). There are definite overtones of Hare's The Blue Room as the author is analysed and admits to being blocked. The suggestion is that she will use her voyeuristic interrogation of Madeleine in order to fuel the next blockbuster. In fact, the true observer is Madeleine, the detached lover.
The two circle each other like prize-fighters before engaging in serious verbal battle. What soon becomes apparent is that the best way for them to come to terms with themselves and each other is to share experiences rather than score points. Only then can they reach the closure and catharsis that they both require.
As always with Hare, the play is littered with funny lines, most of which are given to Maggie Smith's Madeleine. For once, a fair number are predictable although this doesn't prevent the audience from some great laughs.
As the women talk, they batter each other through Martin and vice versa. They sometimes become unkind although they are rarely vicious. Using Pinteresque repetition in speech as a constant, the nature of loss and the approach of old age and death are considered.
While this gives rise to some wonderful aperçus and despite some fiery and on one occasion hilarious, condemnation of the USA, this is a play on a very small scale. It intimately considers three lives but despite references to Madeleine's lifelong idealism it rarely addresses the wider issues that have made Hare's reputation.
Within William Dudley's busy set, Maggie Smith is constantly detached and spiky while Judi Dench only really comes into her own when Frances gets angry. This is an entertaining play but it lacks the depth and political bite of so many of the Hare's others and thus, despite the casting, may not ultimately be regarded as one of his best. That won't stop the returns queues from growing as the short run approaches its end in December.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.