Angel Coulby and Paul McGann in The Forest
Following his recent critically acclaimed, devastating family drama The Son and Oscar-winning film adaptation The Father, the return of French playwright Florian Zeller to the British stage is a welcome one. Translated again by Christopher Hampton, Zeller’s new play The Forest arrives at Hampstead Theatre as a world premiere. Though it shares some of the previous plays’ experimental touches, this production lacks the emotional pull of previous works – suffused instead with a coolly detached, almost surgical sheen; though there are moments of bloody violence, the overall effect remains pristine – perhaps like an operating theatre.
Even more so here than in previous plays, Zeller employs narrative pyrotechnics to explore his theme formally. In The Forest, the nameless main character is an eminent surgeon – but written on the page as two people, Man 1 and Man 2. The role is doubled (by the excellent Toby Stephens and Paul McGann) – contrasting the amiable father and husband with the conniving cheat, the slick, successful healer of others with his desperate urge for self-preservation. The strength of Stephens and McGann’s performances resists such a simple dichotomy though. All of the selves are encapsulated in both; the dual role simply makes these differences more immediately intelligible.
Zeller’s thesis – that men contain many selves, and thus the capacity for cruelty and violence – becomes apparent quickly, and the play’s structural twists and turns largely serve to generate intrigue in the relatively simple plot, rather than build on this theme. It is undeniably a powerful dramaturgical device, and Stephens and McGann thoughtfully generate a continuity between the two parts, but I found that the unfortunate by-product was the implicit suggestion of male complexity – as opposed to female simplicity. Why is it that all of the male roles alternate between the male actors – not only with Man 1 and Man 2, but with the other men interchanging as various friends and colleagues too? The intention seems to be critical of men and male behaviour, but the effect is almost contradictory; the men exist in exquisite complication while the women are singular and simple – even one-note in places.
At its heart, The Forest seems to be a play about gender – but it rarely digs into the social factors that might cause this male multifariousness – or prohibit it for women. The idea that men exist in multiple selves while women – in general – do not could potentially be examined in light of social and historical norms. Perhaps women are not permitted to be complicated in these ways? Yet Zeller’s drama largely steers away from a concept of gender that is socialised, historical or constructed. The structure – baked into the drama from the very start – gestures towards a crude biological determinism, which goes without interrogation. By definition here, maleness involves a tendency to lie and manipulate. Womanhood, in contrast, is presented as a form of victimhood – every main female character wronged by a man’s (usually sexual, sometimes violent) behaviour. The Forest seems to assert this as a precondition, not a product, of society – interested mainly in the effects of this inescapable psychological prison than on potential solutions to the problem. The harm is to everyone – though the male experience of internal struggle is vividly staged, while women’s pain is expressed either in silence – or is rendered completely inaccessible, when the women are pushed offstage or killed.
Jonathan Kent’s direction is extremely slick, and the cast wring as much from the material as they can. Gina McKee and Angel Coulby should be especially commended – locating emotion in their sometimes cipher-like characters. McKee particularly remains etched in my mind for the way her suspicions, disappointments and ultimate exhaustion seem to play across her face – especially given the relative lack of expression the Wife is given in dialogue. She exists on stage largely through the play’s repeated actions – clearing up wine glasses and fetching water, frowning at the greetings card on some unexpected flowers. Never is McKee’s understated presence more palpable than near the play’s ending, where her crushing disappointment with her husband is expressed in a vast silence. ‘What is it?’, the Man asks, but she says nothing. As Zeller writes in his stage directions: ‘She indicates “nothing” with her head. But her serious expression seems to suggest the opposite. An interminable pause, loaded with subtext.’ This moment could have ended the play – a reminder of the cost of male vices on women. Instead, Zeller goes on, choosing to conclude with the Man’s weeping, under a spotlight – rather expressing the play’s gendered priorities in miniature.
Similarly unexamined (or left only to subtext) are other social dynamics in the play – particularly the class and cultural specificities which allow the Man to live the life he does. The Forest is another play in which upper middle-class people have wine and affairs, leading to internal catastrophe – but which has very little effect on the material circumstances of the protagonist. The play’s intentions tend heavily towards the psychological. Yet when the female perspective is so underexplored, heterosexual infidelity (where the man cheats) lacks the same emotional heft of Zeller’s previous subjects (such as dementia and depression). Formally, it seems to be a story about fundamental gender differences, yet the presence of pharmaceutical corruption, bribery and organised murder steer the story into something more generic, yet less universal.
The Forest’s title comes from a recurring metaphor in the play – a nightmare expressing a potent fear of being lost in a forest, every tree different but looking so similar. The experience of watching play is a bit like being lost in a forest at night, with its sinister, uncanny sense that we have been this way before – but that things have changed. (This is often a good thing, and the play is certainly entertaining – its narrative repetitions and variations reeling you in rather than pushing you away.) The space of the forest has long held contrasting symbolism of wildness and wilderness, but also human (male) power; there is danger in the natural world, but which can also be tamed by hunters. Zeller evokes this heady mix of images, replete as it is with traditional ideas of male conquest – the hunt sometimes analogous to romantic endeavour. Yet it is hard not to feel these ideas could have cohered into something more than (admittedly impressive) stage imagery.
Zeller and Kent craft a show filled with strange, sometimes fabulous images – designed impeccably by Anna Fleischle. The downstairs portion of the stage slowly fills with more and more flowers, which appear almost magically. A large painting imperceptibly changes, its style becoming more photorealistic while also changing to display the image of the Girlfriend by the end. In the bedroom of her small flat – which looms above the stage, like the sword of Damocles – we see the Girlfriend’s bloody body laid across the bed, over and over. It is a queasy image though, rather aestheticized – as female corpses too often are. At the end of the play, the lights come up on the bedroom set to reveal a huge deer – shot dead – spreadeagled across the bed, reaffirming the earlier metaphor of forests and conquest. The Girlfriend has become the victim of cruel, male endeavour.
The reason for her murder is simply that – growing tired and jealous of the Man’s marriage to the Wife – she threatens to reveal the affair, unless he commits to be exclusive with her. Coulby mostly sells the characterisation, though play struggles to conceive of any relationship desired by a woman that does not amount to heterosexual monogamy. Yet for all of the Man’s obvious flaws, I also found his willingness to commit murder (by proxy, though one scene presents Man 2 firing and wiping the barrel clean of fingerprints) unconvincing – a stretch too far for a man whose morality seemed merely deficient, rather than a complete void.
If The Forest is meant to imply that these are horrifying depths to which men may sink, given the opportunity, in shallow self-preservation, then its logic is not developed quite enough. Murder here felt too easy – its reveal a relatively cheap twist, a feat of rapid costume changing and sly set design, rather than a source of psychological horror. In its presentation of wronged women, the weight of the betrayal is relatively weak, when the female characters are so thinly sketched. Zeller’s writing merely invites us to pity them, rather than sympathise with their suffering.
The ForestWritten by Florian Zeller, Translated by Christopher Hampton, Directed by Jonathan Kent, Set Design by Anna Fleischle, Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone, Sound Design by Isobel Waller-Bridge, Starring Toby Stephens, Gina McKee, Millie Brady, Paul McGann, Angel Coulby, Eddie Toll, Silas Carson, Sakuntala Ramanee, Finbar Lynch
Reviewed 17th February 2022