If Florian Zeller has a maxim, it has to be: If at first you succeed, try again. In 2015 the French dramatist, working in tandem with his brilliant English translator Christopher Hampton, announced his arrival in the West End with The Father, whose central character, Andre, was an elderly widower deep into the throes of dementia.
In The Height of the Storm, also translated by Hampton, the central character is once again a widower with dementia called Andre (Jonathan Pryce). Both have daughters called Anne, and both plays discombobulate with their distorted sense of time and reality, deliberately disorientating audiences with conundrums and tantalisingly leaving us to make up our minds as to what is real and what is imagined. At the same time, they hauntingly convey the unsettling confusion experienced by victims of this cruel disease and the effect it has on those closest to them.
The Andre of The Height of the Storm is a celebrated author living outside Paris in a splendid home (courtesy of designer Anthony Ward) surrounded by all the bourgeoise trappings of success. His mind is disintegrating, and there is no joy in his life since the recent passing of Madeleine (Eileen Atkins), his wife of 50 years. But is she dead? Apparently not. Suddenly she’s very much alive, chopping red onions and peeling mushrooms. But hold on a minute. A while later she’s the one being consoled by Anne and her second daughter Elise (Anna Madeley). So it’s Andre who has died after all. But is it? Well, no. Soon husband and wife are interacting as though nothing has happened. At the same time, what, you may ask, is the significance of the bouquet of flowers that has just been delivered? Who are they for? Andre or Madeleine? And why is there no accompanying card?
Furthermore, what are we to make of the appearance of Elise’s estate-agent boyfriend (James Hiller), whose visit might be more business than pleasure? Just as mysterious is the sudden arrival of a rather pushy, overfamiliar woman (Lucy Cohu) who, years ago, may or may not have had an affair with Andre.
With all the confusion and the contradictions, is there any wonder that during the first scene break the audience (on the press night at any rate) were chattering away, baffled, but also intrigued?
While there is no avoiding the influence of such playwrights as Pinter, Ionesco and Albee on his work, Zeller’s specialty would appear to be his investigation into the fragility, uncertainty and contradictions of the human condition. Uniquely among contemporary dramatists, he articulates the pain of loss and bereavement in a way that is both disturbing and revelatory. Especially empathetic to this are Pryce and Atkins who, often with only a gesture or a vocal inflexion, create a palette of moods on which they mesmerisingly draw.
With a text as elusive as the one Zeller provides, there is no way director Jonathan Kent can (or should) provide definitive answers. It’s a make-of-it-what-you-will play whose meaning will vary from viewer to viewer depending on one's experiences of life, death and everything that comes between. Kent is aware of this and his direction is designed to provide food for thought.