French playwright Florian Zeller describes his plays as ‘little labyrinths in which we can get lost, and sometimes, find ourselves’. This play is a masterpiece by the writer, in which its cleverness holds your mind hostage so that it is cornered and coerced into exploring the avenues that the plot leads you down. Written in French, translator Christopher Hampton has interpreted Zeller’s nuances and according to Zeller, their collaboration comes from his deep respect for Hampton’s great sensitivity and precision.
It is important to explain that the cleverness of this play is not only due to the writing, but the director Jonathan Kent’s interpretation of the writing, which encourages designer Anna Fleischle to create a three-set stage to enable the cast to play out this labyrinth of scenarios. Confused? Then you have an understanding of the play already. Even though the characters do have names in the play, the cast list does not pin names to the characters, I will do my best to explain the plot.
Man 1 (Toby Stephens) is a surgeon who lives with his wife of 25 years (Gina McKee), and they have a daughter (Millie Brady), and she has a husband (Eddie Toll), who has had an affair. There ends the straight forward part of the play. The three stages are used to show different parts to Man 1’s life, the life that he tries to keep separate from his family and friends. He has been having an affair himself, but his mistress (Angel Coulby) is putting pressure on him to end his marriage. To add to the confusion, Man 2 (Paul McGann) is introduced on set 2, to add another strand to the story, who is inhabiting the same story as Man 1, just as Man 1 then appears on a set 3 to interrogate his son-in-law about his affair.
The play unfolds over a 100-minute period with no interval to enable you to gather your thoughts, which creates a playground for your mind’s own imagination. The attention to detail throughout the play draws the audience in so that they are encouraged to notice every slight change, down to the growing number of flowers that appear in every scene on set 1. Subtext is left for the audience to play with, I should imagine that if each person who had watched the play were interviewed and asked about the storyline, they would each put a different story forward.
The production team are due a huge round of applause, as this must be a challenge not only to design, but to stage manage daily throughout the run with three sets to tweak.
Hampstead have an excellent reputation of putting on challenging and very interesting plays, but they have excelled themselves this time. I cannot recommend this play highly enough. It is seamless in its execution by the cast, and accompanied by the exceptional writing, direction and set design, it is a must see for anyone who wants to leave a theatre stimulated and thrilled by one play. Forget your daily Wordle, ignite your brain’s blue touchpaper by watching this play!
The Forest is on at Hampstead Theatre until the 12th March. To book tickets go to https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2022/the-forest/
Reviewer: Caroline Worswick
Reviewed: 16th February 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★