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theatre

Force Majeure – Donmar Warehouse

Underpowered dialogue and undefined characters make this sometimes-sharp satire of male shame clunk, despite slick design and a terrific premise

Rory Kinnear and Lyndsey Marshal in Force Majeure

Force Majeure, adapted from Ruben Östlund’s 2014 dark comedy film, finds its characters perched on a precipice – literally in Jon Bausor’s vertiginous artificial ski slope set and metaphorically, as Tomas and Ebba contemplate whether to continue or end their marriage. On a skiing holiday in the French Alps, a Swedish family find themselves almost crushed by an avalanche, which stops just short of the restaurant in which they are dining. Everyone is safe and, apart from feeling a little shaken up by it, that should be the end of the matter. Yet Tomas’ reaction to the imminent danger exposes a fissure running to the heart of their relationship – and initiates searching questions over masculinity, cowardice and shame.

Faced by the oncoming snow, Tomas grabs his phone and his gloves and runs. He simply runs away, abandoning his family in a fantastically directed slow-motion sequence. As the stage is blasted with avalanche smoke, Tomas takes to his heels, shoving waiting staff to the ground and stampeding for the exit. Having set Tomas up as a provider – the reason the family can afford an expensive skiing holiday at all – his assumed social credibility as the father of the family is jettisoned by his shameful abandonment of them at a time of crisis.

Yet, significant though this symbolic betrayal is, Force Majeure considers what comes after to be Tomas’ true error. A fight or flight response could be forgiven as just that – an innate response to danger. Yet instead of seeking absolution, Tomas proceeds to deny it happened. He didn’t run away. He was going to come back and dig them out. He wasn’t screaming. (A video conveniently emerges showing him running and screaming.) At every turn, he alters his story – insisting that multiple narratives could exist simultaneously and that the truth itself is fundamentally inaccessible or open for debate. In this regard, Force Majeure compellingly locates an inability to admit mistakes at the heart of male shame.

Rory Kinnear and Sule Rimi in Force Majeure

Unfortunately, the script largely does not live up to this premise. This detonating opening incident should set in motion a controlled avalanche, revealing hidden truths about gender, family roles and shame. Yet what follows is neither the high-octane farce nor the intense character drama which could emerge. Like too many shows, it gets lost in the valley between laugh-a-minute comedy and tautly dramatic satire, never truly hilarious while lacking dramatic bite. The more negative press reviews have aimed squarely at the writing, and though it wants for more laughs, thematic focus and plot consequences, one of the biggest problems for me was the pacing. Lines whose wit perhaps rested in their thrown away quality are delivered as big punchlines. Though the audience are generally receptive, this allows the play to sag unnecessarily.

Some of writing does deserve credit. There’s the lovely line, exhaustedly delivered by Rory Kinnear, that suggests that all the children’s time is ‘me time’ – which is why he and Ebba particularly need ‘me time’ for themselves. It gets a good laugh, but also builds nicely into the play’s subtle probing of the lot of children. One of the strengths of Force Majeure is its consideration of the impositions of family from the side of both generations; the children are frequently irritants and nuisances, yet their treatment by their parents also borders on unacceptable. Other great moments include a compelling scene where Ebba reveals she has been considering an affair, while a brief line in which a man jokes about hunting down and killing his partner’s exes manages to say more about cruel and violent male insecurity than most of the rest of the play.

Yet Force Majeure plays too much as a set of dislocated routines. Ebba ponders infidelity for an engaging five minutes, but it does not seem to lead anywhere. (Tomas is the only character allowed to jeopardise his family significantly through his actions.) The idea is entertained, but there is little payoff. Nor is it something truly exposed by the avalanche. Tomas’ actions initiate some soul-searching, but Ebba has clearly been thinking about this for a while. Perhaps the play is arguing that monogamy acts like a form of gravity – pulling its inhabitants back together, if unhappily, through social (and legal) demands and expectations. In a wry concluding scene, Ebba pretends to be injured, so that the children can see their father ‘save’ her – a symbolic reunion after worries of a potential divorce. Though these moments are judged and directed well, the overarching narrative remains disjointed, rather than playing as a continuous escalation, or descent.

Siena Kelly and Sule Rimi in Force Majeure

There is an unfortunate blandness to much of the dialogue and the script’s thinness is felt most is in its opening ten minutes – where Price slowly introduces the family during their arrival at the resort. The avalanche premise kicks in during Scene Two, and while the play need not open with the family in the restaurant, shortening the time spent on character setup would help immensely. We learn very little indeed about the characters in this time and the family are sketched too thinly. Though the child actors should be commended for excellent performances which ably match the adult actors, they are written in the broadest of brushstrokes: feral, stroppy, impulsive, obsessed with their phones.

Some of the inertia felt here can be excused by the production’s mitigating circumstances. Though I saw Force Majeure about a month into its run, cancellations due to Covid isolations meant that it was technically still in previews. The cast noticeably warmed up as the play went on – understandable after a fortnight offstage, a month since rehearsals ended. Rory Kinnear sometimes finds depth in Tomas and movingly conveys the shame that rots his character’s core, but for Force Majeure to work we either need to empathise despite his flaws or pity him absolutely. Tomas is a stereotype of a dad who does not quite pull his weight. Sometimes he looks after the children; mostly he is too busy looking at his phone. The result is neither likeable nor especially interesting. We are asked to identify solely with an everyman quality, which was not quite enough for me. Ebba is comparatively richer and Lyndsey Marshal quietly brings the play to life at times. Yet every flicker of dramatic interest for Ebba fizzles out – her character encapsulating the stasis which the play contends is the tragedy of heterosexual, monogamous marriage.

Rory Kinnear, Holly Cattle and Sule Rimi in Force Majeure

The second half is improved partly by the more significant roles of other characters, Mats and Jenny in particular (Sule Rimi and Siena Kelly, both excellent). They provide a welcome contrast to the relatively ordinary marital difficulties of the central couple, though feature far less than they might. Kelly (who played a major role in Teenage Dick also at the Donmar, and in Lucy Kirkwood’s Adult Material on Channel 4) seems particularly wasted here, giving an extremely detailed performance in quite a minor role. Their scenes are a highlight though, especially an extended section at the start of Act Two. In Act One, Jenny compares Mats to Tomas, saying that ‘you and Tomas are the same kind of man’. Hours later, this has bubbled up inside him into a paroxysm of anxiety and he stays up all night questioning what has made her say it. Jenny would prefer to sleep, but hours go by while he paces around. He attempts to prove his manhood through violent descriptions and removes the covers from the bed to prevent her from sleeping – forcing Jenny to listen. Price cleverly plays into Force Majeure’s dominant theme of perception; the fear of being thought of as a man who would abandon their family is perhaps worse than actually doing it, the play suggests. Masculinity is all about being seen as a man (with its connotations both positive and negative) – rather than actually being one.

The play concludes with a slightly underdeveloped coda, which seeks to conclude its analysis of gendered shame. In a scene which feels undeniably forced, Ebba does a similar thing to her husband during the avalanche. The plays’ main characters are all squeezed into a lift, which then malfunctions. Ebba forces her way out in terror, her claustrophobia having been set up earlier in the play. The lesson seems to be that there is no gendered monopoly on such failures, cruelties and insufficiencies. Yet men generally find it harder to admit their errors. By contrast, Ebba owns up and asks for forgiveness. In his own way, Tomas learns to (just a bit). His two children see him smoking (the older daughter, Vera, already knew he did). He apologises, promising to be honest and give up when he gets home. It sums up his secret shame – futilely hiding this habit from his children to avoid their disapproval. Kinnear sells his promise as earnestly intended and it is a touching – if quite glib – conclusion.

Lyndsey Marshal and Rory Kinnear in Force Majeure

Ultimately, what is lost in translation – from film to stage, and Swedish to English – is the cultural significances on which a drama like this should surely play. Yet the central family have so little cultural specificity that the occasional references to Scandinavia and the names Tomas and Ebba are the only signs they are Swedish. Essentially, they come across as an archetypal bumbling, middle-class English family – drawn in the broadest strokes. They are objects of satire, yet their generic portrayal stymies any chance of incisive critique. Force Majeure attempts to reach towards something more elemental, psychological – something not socialised or based on class or nationality; after all, the avalanche exposes the characters’ priorities when there is no chance to consider how they will be perceived. Yet attempting to write a satire without any cultural specificity leaves everything dangling vaguely, the characters floating through the drama rather formlessly.

In the script, Tim Price’s stage directions note, in relation to the outfits of the more experienced skiers, that ‘No other normal amount of apparel can project quite as much kitsch and aggression about patterns, colours and logos’. It is an usually charged description, compared to the detached style of Price’s other directions, mocking the appearance of the rather standoffish semi-professional skiers. Yet what is the object of the satire? On stage, the joke seems to be that the family seem intimidated – inexperienced in skiing (though due to its relative unaffordability, or just lack of recent practice). Is it intended that we laugh at the aesthetic gaudiness of ski equipment in general? Or is it a more class-based comment, suggesting that they lack taste, with their ‘kitsch’, cheap but expensive attire, in a satire of nouveau riche tendencies? This ambiguity seems emblematic of the decision to leave such matters unexplored. A far more interesting staging of Force Majeure could have examined the connections between gender, familial relationships, class, wealth and comfort. Instead, skiing is only a coincidental setting of the play, rather than a crystallisation of its underlying interests and anxieties.

Force Majeure

Adapted for the stage by Tim Price, From the film by Ruben Östlund, Design by Jon Bausor, Lighting Design by Lucy Carter, Sound Design by Donato Wharton, Movement Direction by Sasha Milavic Davies, Starring Nathalie Armin, Bo Bragason, Holly Cattle, Raffaello Degruttola, Florence Hunt, Henry Hunt, Siena Kelly, Rory Kinnear, Lyndsey Marshal, Kwami Odoom, Sule Rimi, Oliver Savell, Arthur Wilson
Reviewed 3rd January 2022

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