Jeremy Irons marks his return to the stage after an absence of some 17 years in the role of an obsessed but honourable aristocrat named Henrik. 'Embers' has a cast of just 3, but with Irons having almost all the dialogue, it has more the feel of a one-man show. However, Irons is well-supported here by Patrick Malahide as Konrad, and Jean Boht as Henrik's doting housekeeper and former nanny, Nini.
Christopher Hampton's script is based on a novel by Sándor Márai that was first published in 1942, but which, until very recently, had been pretty well forgotten and unread. Now regarded by many as something of a classic, Márai's work is both intriguing as well as an acutely and closely observed period piece. It also has an unusual and daring format where much of the work is devoted to speech, rather than description.
Márai was born in 1900 in Kassa, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the Archduke Ferdinand (heir to the Empire) was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914 precipitating the First World War, Márai's life was effectively changed forever with the resulting break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although he remained in his native Hungary until 1948, his anti-communist views meant that he was harassed out of the country, eventually settling in the United States. He committed suicide in 1989.
Set in 1940, 'Embers' is about two friends, Konrad and Henrik, who, now in old age, have not met for 41 years. Konrad has travelled across warring Europe from London to see his old friend, suggesting the significance of the meeting - something of great importance needs to be resolved to justify a life-threatening journey.
When the play begins, Henrik is making preparations for Konrad's arrival. With a military and dignified bearing, when we see him take a gun from his writing desk, we are under no illusions that he knows how to use it and will should the need arise. It's tempting at this juncture to conclude that the play is a thriller, and in some ways it is, because the suspense created when Henrik checks his gun is more than sufficient to keep us guessing about the outcome. However, although revenge is certainly on his mind, Henrik is more interested in answers to questions. Those questions revolve around the circumstances of Konrad's sudden disappearance 41 years earlier. Having thought of little else in the intervening period, Henrik knows, or has pieced together some of the facts, not least of which, was the involvement of his wife, Krisztina.
The play is divided into two unequal parts. The shorter first half covers Henrik's preparations and Konrad's arrival, while the second half consists of a post-dinner conversation - more aptly described as a monologue - where Henrik fills us in with the details of his story, and eventually poses his questions.
Peter Davison's huge, striking set provides an appropriately aristocratic backdrop to the proceedings. It's a cavernous space, complete with vaulted ceiling, huge furniture and massive doors that all but dwarf the characters as events unfold. Davidson has managed to capture the faded and fading grandeur of Henrik's castle home, whilst symbolising the lengthy timescales the story involves as well as hinting that the play is about something much larger than any of the individual characters.
Irons produces a mesmerising and captivating tour de force as the obsessed Henrik, warmly applauded by both his supporting actors come the curtain calls. Although it stretches believability to imagine someone not speaking to, or even being with his wife for 8 years, Iron's tortured but reserved conviction is more than adequate to convince.
Patrick Malahide has a more difficult job than one might think. For much of the play he sits listening intently to Henrik, responding mostly with gestures and expressions. Malahide covers the pain of the unsettling experience, leaving us guessing as to his true feelings and motives.
Jean Boht gave a touching portrayal as Henrik’s former wet nurse, turned housekeeper. When she enters after Konrad has left and says ‘Are you feeling calmer now’, we know that she understands his needs and personality completely, and one sensed that her Nini would will herself to live long enough not to leave Henrik alone.
The play covers many themes - obsession, grief, friendship, love, betrayal, loneliness - set in a world where duty and honour were significantly more important than they are today. The novel's original title 'A Gyertyák Csonkig Égnek' when translated might be 'The Candles Burn Right Down' or 'Candle stump' , which in many ways is more evocative and appropriate than 'Embers', because candles form an essential symbolic ingredient in Henrik's preparations for his dinner with Konrad.
My guest astutely observed that, given the nature of the format - with Henrik having almost all the spoken lines - it might be more rewarding to read the book rather than watch a dramatic adaptation of it. That proposition has some merit considering the power and nature of Márai's original and intimate work. But the play is not only a worthy and faithful adaptation, but Irons' portrait brings to life a character from a lost world which in itself is both richly rewarding and terrifically watchable. Highly recommended.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "I was fired, moved and enthralled by Embers. I rate it as one of the major experiences of my theatre-going life." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "All the talk is intelligent, textured, philosophical, yet never so highflown as to become difficult." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "It's a weirdly unbalanced evening." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "I found it elegant, elegiac and psychologically penetrating. Only the absence of any real dramatic danger prevents a classy evening becoming something more." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "This one's a hard slog...This, I fear, is a show for only his [Jeremy Irons] most devoted fans." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "The novel was stranger, richer, more satisfying than the play."