If foreign correspondent Jim Maceda’s account of meeting Imelda Marcos, Mrs Duvalier and Mirjana Milosevic is anything to go by, dictators’ spouses are even more chillingly psychopathic than the despots themselves. In Abi Morgan’s Splendour, the dictator is absent, as a single scene between four women (one of them his wife) is played and replayed in the presidential nest of an unspecified country as civil war erupts.
Micheleine (Sinéad Cusack) hosts her “best friend of thirty… five… years” Genevieve (Michelle Fairley) and coolly sardonic foreign photojournalist Kathryn (Genevieve O’Reilly), who has come to photograph the presidential couple, accompanied by her drolly kleptomaniac interpreter Gilma (Zawe Ashton).
As the chilli-flavoured vodka flows, composures fray. Episodically, the opening staging reconfigures, Micheleine’s vase is smashed and the scene begins anew. It’s a risky structure which portends Groundhog Day levels of déjà vu, but Jack Murphy’s movement direction is seamless and, with every revival, the situation becomes more intensely cross-hatched with newly-perceived social dynamics and more deeply excruciating.
Thirty-five years is, we find out, “a long time to despise your best friend,” but Fairley is dextrous in increasing Genevieve’s outspokenness. Her previous Donmar credits include Huis Clos (No Exit), Sartre’s interminable three-hander set in hell-proper, so she’s no stranger to sustaining intrigue in an inferno.
There are no weak links in this cast, who zero in on their characters’ contrasting qualities, making for loaded interaction and a transfixingly acrid cocktail of personalities. Cusack slithers between exchanges like an immaculately coiffured velociraptor who has devoured Debrett’s Guide to Social Etiquette. Fatly exuding well-being, she fires anecdotes about her grandson into conversational lulls with laser-like precision. Thus she’s a perfect foil for Ashton, who progressively foregrounds Gilma’s ravenousness, sensitively revealing her fragility.
Designer Peter McKintosh encircles her vault-like habitat with shards of broken glass. The message is clear: the pervasive desolation outside can only be kept at bay for so long. For the others, Micheleine’s haven is totally hellish, something which Lee Curran reflects competently by marking temporal transitions with his red-glowing chandelier, although he could afford to up the ante with his lighting design to convey something more of the encroaching outside.
Despite its dated references to videos, there is a brilliance to Morgan’s script which feels timeless. One issue is that by abstaining from situating the play, she suggests that her characters are archetypes — an idea which in the case of this production does not do justice to each actor’s rendering of a very finely-wrought individual.
Splendour is on at Donmar Warehouse 30 July-26 September 2015. Tickets £10*-£37.50. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.
*Barclays Front Row £10 tickets
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