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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Duke of York’s, London

By Michael Coveney

  Embers at the Duke of York’s

All over the West End, in Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams, as well as in David Harrower’s Blackbird and Joanna Murray-Smith’s Honour, people are picking scabs off past passions in moods of elegy, reminiscence and anger.

With Christopher Hampton’s Embers, adapted by the playwright from a recently re-discovered short novel by the Hungarian writer Sandor Marai, we have the husk itself: two old friends, Henrik and Konrad, both now seventy-five years old, worry at the "truth" of what happened with Krisztina, Henrick’s beautiful wife, long dead, whom they both loved. Had she asked Konrad to shoot her husband on a hunting expedition?

The friends have not met for over 40 years. Their dinner tonight will be both a reunion and a farewell. The year is 1940; London is enduring the Blitz. But this remote castle in Hungary is the last outpost of a vanishing world of empire.

The two men were students together in the military academy, Henrik born to the ranks, Konrad a poor boy whose Polish parents sacrificed everything for his advancement. At the end of Hampton’s second scene, Henrik recalls the day he visited his friend’s rooms in the town: his wife emerged from the darkness.

It is a spine-tingling curtain-line (the intermission arrives after just half an hour) and precedes what is, in effect, a monologue after dinner for Henrik in the second act. Jeremy Irons, returning to the London stage after 17 years (he was last seen with the RSC in Richard II and The Rover), gives a virtuoso performance of anxiety, regret, interrogation and self-laceration.

Meanwhile, Patrick Malahide as Konrad sits immobile and inscrutable, answering neither questions nor accusations. What on the page of Marai’s novel (published in English three years ago; the author shot himself in San Diego in 1989) is a riveting, ambiguous tragedy, translates in Hampton’s skillful text as a dull, virtually inconsequential ramble.

Hampton sets the scene in real time, compresses the flashbacks into present reminiscence and preserves the Austro-Hungarian flavor in the bustling, briefly seen old nanny (Jean Boht) and the sense of foreboding in thunderstorm and Chopin piano music. Konrad loves music, Henrik doesn’t understand it. What he does understand is the essential difference between the friendship of men and that of women.

Michael Blakemore’s production could not be more sensitive or delicately nuanced. But for the play to have packed a more emotional punch, we needed…what, exactly? Actors who were much older and more susceptible to the tricks of memory, perhaps? You could imagine John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson of No Man’s Land vintage wringing so much more from the situation.

Irons is on fire all right, the melancholic rasp in his voice poking at the embers of love and betrayal, while Malahide is as ferociously bullet-headed and unbending as a secret agent entrusted with a whole country’s dignity. In the end, though, each is defeated by the essential lack of drama in the conflict. We don’t demand catharsis, but we expect more of a struggle.


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