'The Confessions' review – Alexander Zeldin's deeply personal play finds the extraordinary in the ordinary life

Read our four-star review of the semi-biographical drama The Confessions, now in performances at the National Theatre to 4 November.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

The Confessions is a deeply personal work by Alexander Zeldin, based on the life of his Australian mother and her journey towards living that life on her own terms.

In this play, which was first performed in Vienna and has landed at the National as part of a European tour, writer and director Zeldin calls to mind Nobel Laureate Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical writings about womanhood and Brian Friel’s memory play Dancing at Lughnasa, recently staged here.

Alice (Amelda Brown), an older woman declares, “I’m not interesting or clever.” The curtains open and we re-meet Alice as a teenager when she and her friends prepare for their leaving dance – both are surprised that she’s headed to uni as she isn’t considered academic.

The ensemble is strong and the production is helmed by a superb central performance by Eryn Jean Norvill, who charts the decades of Alice’s life. Alice fails her first year of uni but she’s deeply intelligent and thirsts for books and stimulating conversation. Still, her mother pushes her to marry her staid suitor Graham (Joe Bannister) and, after a clinical courtship, she becomes a naval wife with a stultifying Edna Everage-esque suburban social life.

She leaves her husband and joins the bohemian living arrangements of her schoolfriend Susie (Gabrielle Scawthorn) and her girlfriend Eva (Pamela Rabe), a stand-in for Germaine Greer, and embarks on an open relationship with a poetry professor, then on her own academic path as an art historian.

The episode of sexual assault is more powerful for not being shown. Alice goes to the bathroom at the home of a male artist whose brand is all about penetration and is followed by the lecherous professor accompanying her while the artist sits there impassively.

In the scene in which she is confronts her trauma by turning the tables on her attacker, Brown is remarkably brave to physically make herself so vulnerable on stage. Did that part really happen? Zeldin inserts himself (as Leander, played by Lillit Lesser) into the narrative: “Mum, I had no idea”.

In her forties in London when studying to be a social worker, Alice meets the lovely Jacob (Brian Lipson), the love of her life, an older Austrian Jew, in the British Museum Reading Room (it feels a bit like Jo and Professor Bhaer in Little Women). When asked about his background, he states that he was born in Vienna and then his family “moved around”. Zeldin could surely write another play about his father’s life.

Marg Howell’s set-within-a-set includes a school hall, suburban kitchen and chaotic flat, akin to different layers of a life. It’s an intense piece of work but there is humour (especially in the evening class student archetypes). It ends abruptly but at just under two hours long and performed without an interval and spanning decades, it is compelling throughout in its telling of the story of an “ordinary” woman whose life and achievements have been anything but.

The Confessions is at the National Theatre through 4 November.

Photo credit: The Confessions (Photo by Christophe Raynaud de Lage)

Originally published on

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