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Photo credit: The Forest cast (Photo by The Other Richard)

'The Forest' review — Florian Zeller's latest drama possesses dark, shivering qualities

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

The first Florian Zeller play to premiere not in his native French but in English, The Forest also marks this writer's most disturbing and alluring play in years, not least as delivered in a production from an empathic Jonathan Kent that matches the text's deepening sense of mystery. Bringing together a starry cast as seems of late to be the Hampstead Theatre norm, the 80-minute play feels like a riff on the likes of Pinter's Betrayal while wandering toward various tropes of the horror genre that are infinitely more unsettling here than, for instance, in the clunky and obvious 2:22 A Ghost Story across town.

Zeller's typically well-heeled milieu - the characters generically cited in the programme (Man 1, Man 2 etc) but specifically named in the published text - focuses at the start on a distinguished-seeming doctor, Pierre (Toby Stephens), in the company of his inimitably sleek wife (Gina McKee, immediately commanding) and a daughter (Millie Brady) on the tearful rebound from a relationship gone awry.

So far so straightforward, you might think as the father tries to comfort his emotionally riven child, but not so fast. As the lights go up on the different sections of Anna Fleischle's elegant, multi-chambered set, we are shown atop the central playing space a bedroom, and a bed, occupied by an adulterer known as Man 2 (Paul McGann) who before long is seen to be the Stephens character in different guise. Is the father not overly keen to assert normalcy in the company of his daughter lest he expose himself as an adulterer as well?

What ensues is a cat's cradle of duplicity and disorientation, as befits a playwright who has already written a theatrical diptych entitled The Truth and The Lie. "Truth", indeed, is repeatedly invoked by Pierre, whose own distance from that very word becomes increasingly evident as his mind - and sense of self - are seen to fracture. Before you know it, a whey-faced Finbar Lynch shows up as a doomy figure whose specific function is left opaque, in keeping with a narrative that sacrifices linearity in favour of reversals and repetitions that prompt one to consider afresh what one has just seen or been told.

One minute, McKee's character is speaking into the air, the next she's grabbing her husband's hand with a firmness bordering on ferocity. The title is invoked in relation to a stag that plays a prominent part in the closing visuals and in metaphoric amplification of the thicket of narrative roadblocks so relished by Zeller here as elsewhere in his prolific career, such as The Son

Zeller's overarching topic remains that of a mind under siege whose shards are given external life even as an indrawn pain deepens on the way to the play's genuinely forbidding close. (Spoiler ahead: there will be blood.) His face contorted into anxiety, and worse, for most of the show, Stephens seizes hold of Pierre with commendable force, his presence representing a touchstone of sort for Kent who has worked with this actor for many years.

A decidedly eerie Lynch, in turn, looks as if he could be auditioning to play the Emcee in Cabaret, and it's worth noting that both Stephens and McKee have performed in Pinter plays at the Donmar: a useful credit given the comparable landscape traversed here.

It's difficult to imagine a more adroit trio of collaborators than Fleischle, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, and sound designer Isobel Waller-Bridge, who between them conjure up three separate rooms where, one feels, anything can happen as realities, and discrete playing spaces, start to blur. Flowers pile up at a rate alarming even for Valentine's Day, and a painting suddenly changes as if imperceptibly.

Some will dismiss The Forest as more middlebrow posturing from a playwright who with each freshly succinct title continues to mistake tricksiness for depth, but that's not the feeling in this corner. Suffice it to say that I left the Hampstead shaken and also stirred and ready to return at the first opportunity to watch the play's dark recesses reveal their shadowy, shivery power once more.

The Forest is at Hampstead Theatre to 12 March.

Photo credit: The Forest cast (Photo by The Other Richard)

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