The Breath of Life

Wednesday, 16 October, 2002
Review by: 
Amanda Hodges

David Hare's new play offers the unsurpassable opportunity to see not one but two of theatreland's finest appearing together on stage. Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench offer, quite simply, a masterclass in acting and though there may be the odd wobble in the play itself, nothing but the highest praise goes to this dynamic duo.

William Dudley's evocative set beautifully conjures the rather elegant yet cluttered flat that Madeleine Palmer (Smith) occupies on the Isle of Wight. One evening novelist Frances Beale (Judi Dench) pays her a visit, ostensibly to gather material for her imminent memoir. Both women have shared the same man in the past and the stage is set for an emotional showdown as the irascible, witheringly witty Madeleine deflects Frances' probing with the sort of barbed retorts that do not so much stop as strangle further enquiry. Madeleine's a retired curator, waspish and wary, dismissive of all things American and deeply suspicious of anyone who spends their time 'inventing' as she caustically refers to the profession of novel-writing.

In the first Act there is certainly a real imbalance as Frances is effectively steamrollered by Madeleine's formidable verbal arsenal, but in the play's second half one's allowed a glimpse of more rounded characterisation; Frances' silent anguish as she listens to an account of a newly resumed love affair is heartbreakingly poignant and in Dench's capable hands a potentially flat character slowly evolves into something much more unexpectedly substantial; a woman, as Madeleine eventually perceives her, 'of much courage but little confidence.' Both actresses are pitch-perfect in every scene and although Martin, the unseen catalyst for their meeting, seems a trifle cliched, Smith & Dench certainly bring out every nuance of their respective roles, creating a spellbinding evening.


Production photos from EPO

Notices from the popular press....

MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Smoothly written and superbly performed."RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Listless production...Laughter is as thin on the ground as theatrical sparks." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Elegantly, shrewdly and wittily written...beautifully played by the dames; but the conclusion is deliberately unclear." BBC ONLINE says, "Evenings at the theatre do not come much richer, wiser or neater.." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Two great dames rise magnificently to the occasion." MICHAEL COVENEY for THE DAILY MAIL says, "This is Maggie Smith's evening" And goes on to say, "Disappointingly, it does not ignite a theatrical 'head-to-head' in the way one was expecting." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "These sexagenarians are absolutely riveting.....Both actresses , but pre-eminently Dame Maggie, breathe the oxygen of dramatic life into David Hare's new"

External links to full reviews from newspapers

The Guardian
The Independent
The Times
BBC Online
Daily Telegraph
Daily Mail

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