Splendour

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Prepare for a strong sense of déjà vu and scintillating performances from the all-female cast in Abi Morgan’s Splendour

I hate waiting. It’s dead time, dull. And yet, at the hands of a skillful writer it can be transformed – a certain piece by Samuel Beckett springs to mind. Abi Morgan is another such talent who manages to make a purposefully repetitive play about four women waiting for a man (ladies, I sympathise!) somehow riveting.

The waiting room in this case is a palatial, chandelier-decked hall, in what we suppose is some Balkan state; the man in question a dictator who is supposed to be coming home to have his picture taken by a foreign photojournalist.

Genevieve O'Reilly (Kathryn) in Splendour at the Donmar Warehouse - photo by Johan Persson

The women’s characters are as markedly different as it’s possible to be: there’s the cynical, elusive photographer Kathryn (Genevieve O’Reilly); the awkward yet sly interpreter Gilma (Zawe Ashton), who deliberately mistranslates phrases and steals everything from a vase to a Toy Story DVD through the course of the play; ritzy, domineering hostess and First Lady Micheleine (Sinéad Cusack); and her supposed best friend, the downtrodden Genevieve (Michelle Fairley – yes, her from Game of Thrones). Their animosity towards each other ranges from baffled irritation to the deepest loathing – “35 years is a long time to hate your best friend,” Fairley tells us in one of the play’s frequent monologues. A comparison to caged animals springs to mind as they prowl round the ostentatious room – prickly, tense and suspicious.

The dictator, meanwhile, is like the painting that is discussed throughout the play: hanging invisibly over the audience’s heads, interpreted differently by each of them. And as the story unfolds it becomes increasingly clear that the city outside this lavish chamber is collapsing into bloody revolution. Peter McKintosh’s set evokes this sense of underlying, encroaching threat masterfully, with a circle of broken glass surrounding the room suggesting the violent, icy night beyond, and the vast window that glowers over the stage yet shows us nothing, a shadow upon which you can project your own imaginings.

Genevieve O'Reilly (Kathryn) and Sinéad Cusack (Micheline) in Splendour at the Donmar Warehouse - photo by Johan Persson

I say ‘as the story unfolds’ but in fact Splendour has no linear plot. Instead, the same scene is repeated over and over again. At first this set alarm bells ringing – wouldn’t it be gimmicky, self-conscious, and, well, plain dull? Well, no. Different nuances are brought out each time by the varying omissions, deliveries and emphases, and so the dialogue spirals quite compellingly, expanding our understanding of the drama each time. Freeze, rewind, fast-forward. Morgan’s script somehow also makes it convincing that the characters are communicating in two different languages, despite the fact the dialogue is all in English.

And in the last minutes, it is a string of sounds and images rather than words that capture the inevitable shattering of all this mounting tension: a Venetian glass vase smashing, Micheleine’s bravado slipping into a string of chilling sobs before walking in stockinged feet over the shards, and, finally, a photo.

Spendour at the Donmar Warehouse until 26th September 2015. For more information and tickets visit the website.

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