Sándor Márai, adapted by Christopher Hampton
Duke of York's Theatre
Jeremy Irons' return to the London stage after an eighhteen year gap is a major event. There is no doubt that an actor of this calibre will have crowds flocking to the Duke of York's to see him performing in the flesh.
It was perhaps inevitable that he would choose a star vehicle for his re-emergence and then the only question was whether it would turn out to be a luxurious Rolls Royce giving pleasure to all who see it, a functional but unexciting Smart car lacking power, or even a stately hearse from which he could never return.
Regrettably, even though Embers is based on what has now become a cult book, it was a very strange selection for a stage adaptation. This is a short novella set near Vienna in 1940 recalling life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the 19th century.
In it, a couple of men in their seventies discuss a lover lost over forty years before. The only other character can hardly be described as sprightly either, since she is the protagonist's 91 year-old nurse.
The play opens with a brief discussion between Irons' Henrik and the omniscient nurse played by Jean Boht, who despite her star billing spends little more than five minutes on stage throughout. They discuss the impending visit of Konrad, Henrik's former military comrade, whom neither has seen for 41 years.
The discussions in the mere forty minutes leading up to the interval calmly set the scene for the tale of heartache that will be revealed once the audience is refreshed.
Soon Henrik who, with his formal dress, beard and waxed moustaches, looks uncannily like George V, is not only vividly recalling his own story from over four decades before but saving poor Konrad the effort of telling his side of it.
This effectively becomes an hour-long monologue delivered by the star, largely to Patrick Malahide who is able to do little more than a nod and eventually deliver a perpetually pained grimace.
During this time, Henrik terribly slowly builds up to the revelation, to us at least, that he had been cuckolded by his closest friend. The one further twist relates to his relationship with his wife following the abscondment of her lover.
The greatest tragedy of this story is that of the writer. Márai wrote this book in 1942 and, having been chased out of his home country by the Soviets, had not achieved the fame that he craved by the time that he shot himself in San Diego 47 years later. It was only subsequently that the book gained something of a cult following and now finds itself adapted for the West End stage.
The pedigree of the creative team cannot be faulted. Sándor Márai's Hungarian book which has a far more enticing title in a literal translation, The Candles Burn Right Down, has been adapted for the stage by Christopher Hampton. For those who might not immediately remember, this is the man who turned an obscure French epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses into a West End hit that was eventually made almost simultaneously into two films, the one starring John Malkovich becoming a classic.
In support are experienced director Michael Blakemore and designer Peter J Davison who provides a rather shabby room within Henrik's Castle with, most significantly, the back wall graced by a portrait of his mother twinned with a symbolically empty frame.
Embers was never likely to make for exciting piece of theatre since, like Greek tragedy, it relies entirely on reported action (or in this case, inaction). Regrettably, the Greeks reported events of far more excitement and moment than anything presented on this stage.
The verdict has to be that Mr Irons has chosen an underpowered Smart car for his West End return and while it is a pleasure to see him, it is to be hoped that next time out, he will turn up in a Bentley or a Roller.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher