“The play’s the thing...” said Shakespeare in a completely different context. Except it isn’t where Nancy Harris’ play Two Ladies is concerned. What gives the evening its zest and entertainment value are the two central performances from Zoë Wanamaker and Croatian actress Zrinka Cvitesic. With a bit of help from director Nicholas Hytner, they make the best of a potentially promising but ultimately unsatisfying text.
Wanamaker plays Helen, an erstwhile English journalist now married to the younger president of France, over whom she has great influence. Cvitesic is Sophia, one-time model from Zagreb and now the trophy wife of the president of the United States. Their husbands are never identified by name of course, but unless you’ve been living on another planet, it’s clear that they’re Macron and Trump.
The setting is a conference centre somewhere along the Cote d’Azur. The right-wing U.S. president has travelled to France to seek retaliatory support from the French president after military strikes by an unidentified terrorist group leave a thousand people dead. (Why the president bypasses Britain, America’s closest ally, is never explained. Brexit?)
When the play begins, the two wives have been confined to a room with their respective aides while their unseen spouses are taking meetings elsewhere in the building. So far it hasn’t been a good day for Sophia. Her chic Chanel outfit has been ruined after being spattered with animal blood by one of the local protestors and isn’t getting the appropriate sympathy from her aides. Nor is she getting on particularly well with Helen, each initially weary of the other.
Left alone, however, they slowly begin to bond as they discover they share a thankless common ground in the roles they are expected to play. Sophia is particularly honest about her background and the humiliation of being married to a man “who speaks to me only in front of other people.” As the wrongs done to both of them emerge, Sophia hatches a plot that will help readjust the imbalance of power she is made to live with every day of her life.
I won’t reveal the nature of the plot, other than to tell you it steers the play in an implausible direction from which it never really recovers. It’s an “if only” solution and the stuff of fantasy.
Still, the evening isn’t without its fun moments, and although Cvitescic was sometimes hard to decipher, the spectre of Melania Trump was present in every gesture and utterance.
Wanamaker, who’s incapable of giving a bad performance, brought her usual authority and conviction to the role of Helen, making it easy to gloss over the implausibility of what the playwright is asking us to swallow.
Two Ladies? Fiddely-diddely-dee.