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A CurtainUp London Review
Peter Nichols' Passion Play is revived at the Duke of York's with Zoë Wanamaker and Samantha Bond twinning the role of Eleanor/Nell, wife of James/Jim (Owen Teale and Oliver Cotton) who embarks on an extra-marital affair with siren Kate (Annabel Scholes). It is of course this dramatic construct which makes Nichols' play stand out from any old play about adultery.
I last reviewed Michael Grandage's production of Passion Play at the Comedy in 2000 and I found a differing reaction to David Leveaux's current production. The character of Kate seemed to me this time to be not a real woman but a male fantasy figure. She is very pretty and dresses sexily and makes it apparent from the outset that she is interested in a sexual relationship with heretofore happily married, Owen Teale's James. Because Kate has a single dimension with no alter ego, she appears without guilt or loyalty to her stated friendship with Eleanor. It is with ease that she seduces James such is his vanity. As Eleanor puts it, “Tell me that you are screwing a girl younger than our daughter.”
In fact none of these characters have much by way of likeability. Eleanor confesses to her husband about her brief infidelity with her best friend Agnes' now dead husband Albert but James and Kate deliberately continue to deceive Eleanor, while protesting that their affair is fully over. It is not a pretty picture of the excitement and titillation derived from the secrecy and furtive nature of betrayal, nor one hopeful that marriage can be a settled state. The connection, made as James restores a painting of the passion of Christ linking Christian morality as the only reason for marital fidelity, is weak.
Of the performances, Owen Teale doesn't strike us as in any way desirable although the actor is often cast as God's gift to womankind. Zoë Wanamaker seems rather dull and despairing, which is of course where this affair takes her, rather than the comedy roles the audience are used to seeing her play on television. Oliver Cotton's tongue hangs out for most of the performance as he expresses as Jim, James' unexpressed sexual rapaciousness and capacity for deceit. At least we can laugh at his transparent antics. Only Agnes (Sian Thomas) has sexual integrity but her widowed character is flawed by bitterness and caustic verve as victim and the woman Albert left for Kate.
Hildegarde Bechtler's modern minimalist set with its long red sofa fits the playing area and allows us to see the faces of the cast. The choral music that we are told Eleanor sings is beautiful and I liked the wordplay on Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God and abandoned widow Agnes. Laura Hopkins supplies Eleanor's dowdy clothes and Kate's “Come and Get Me” outfits. In the closing scene when Kate turns up in fur coat and nothing else and drops the coat with her back to the audience, her naked body is cruelly lit and not a thing of beauty.
As we left the theatre, my friend said, “That happened to me. My best friend and my husband. She wanted what I had and in the end I divorced him and she left him.” Passion Play has nothing new to say about marital decay.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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