Even though almost half of all marriages end in divorce, there seems to be no shortage of volunteers to sign-up to a commitment of monogamy. And with recent legislation to allow same-sex marriages and the controversy it has aroused there seems more interest in the concept than ever. But when matrimonial monogamy disintegrates it provides all the ingredients for intense, emotional drama which, for many of us, largely proves irresistible. And 'Passion Play' is one of the best plays in this genre. Written more than 30 years ago, Peter Nichols's play about infidelity and betrayal still seems so fresh, pertinent and real that it could have been written yesterday.
Eleanor (Zoë Wanamaker) and James (Owen Teale) have been married for 25 years. Apparently, they have co-existed happily enough during that time, and neither of them appear to have succumbed to the temptations of infidelity during their long years of marriage. But when James learns that one of Eleanor's 'girlfriends' finds him attractive, he cannot resist temptation. The woman in question - Kate (played by Annabel Scholey) - is about half James's age and looks like she has just stepped off the front cover of a glossy fashion magazine. More than that, Kate has more than a passing interest in older men as James is all too well-aware. It is no surprise then that the two of them start a clandestine affair. But it doesn't remain a secret for very long. When Eleanor's friend Agnes finds a letter from James to Kate she duly passes it on, and Eleanor then confronts her husband with his infidelity. The problem for Eleanor is how to deal with the situation. In the end she decides to deliver a 'her or me' ultimatum, which initially seems to work.
You might think there was ample material in this kind of plot to produce more than enough emotional intensity and interaction. But Peter Nichols goes much further in providing motivational insight, by offering us two additional characters, Nell and Jim, played by Samantha Bond and Oliver Cotton respectively. They are the alter egos of James and Eleanor who outwardly appear the same, wearing identical clothes, but articulate very different thoughts and feelings.
It's not easy to fix David Leveaux's stylishly fluid and authoritative revival in terms of time. Hildegard Bechtler's intelligent design is almost date neutral, but equally there are more than a few hints of the 1980s or earlier, especially given the presence of a vinyl-playing stereo system and phone calls made from coin-operated telephone boxes which indicate a time before mass electronic communication. Clearly though, the intention is to describe themes which transcend specific time periods.
In the acting department Annabel Scholey is deliciously seductive and sensual as Kate, but her character proves unflinchingly amoral. Zoë Wanamaker's hugely affecting Eleanor is a woman trapped in an insufferable dilemma. On the one hand, she doesn't want to lose the husband she loves but is destroyed by his ongoing betrayal. Owen Teale's excellent James is similarly emotionally imprisoned by an overwhelming, obsessive passion for Kate, though his predicament hardly seems as deserving of sympathy in quite the same way as Eleanor's.
Watching a marriage disintegrate and witnessing the destructive consequences is hardly easy viewing, but this is nonetheless a superb revival of an extraordinarily well-written and emotionally gripping drama.
"It's Wanamaker who gives the evening its distinction by showing, with vivid particularity, how loss of trust in one's partner numbs the sense of self."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This production by David Leveaux manages at its best to be clever and fun, with a strikingly spare design by Hildegard Bechtler. But the writing feels excessively artful... the best of Nichols is his sour comedy, some of which doesn’t quite come through."
The Evening Standard
"This is a drama packed with black humour and wrenching emotion...David Leveaux’s beautifully judged production does full justice to this ingenious modern classic. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph