Fresh off the success of his film adaptation of The Father (starring Olivia Coleman and Anthony Hopkins), playwright Florian Zeller’s brand new play The Forest is unsurprisingly bleak – I mean, that’s kind of his thing – though with a more intriguing sense of anguish than outright despair we’ve seen in previous works.
Anguish, because doctor Pierre (A Day in the Death of Joe Egg‘s Toby Stephens) is trying to balance his career with his mediocre family life, and his extramarital affair with ‘The Girlfriend’ (Albion‘s Angel Coulby). Set designer Anna Fleischle, no stranger to domestic sets given her work on A German Life, A Kind of People and Home, I’m Darling, excels in blurring the lines between these three different areas with a blockish, imposing set. In the centre is his home living room, expansive with vintage decor; right is a small office space and above the house is a bedroom where ‘The Girlfriend’ awaits, the bed slanting towards us ever so slightly to appear almost intrusive (a fitting word in the context of the play). In time, the locations blur, lights clinging on to characters for a little while longer as the scenes transition – aided by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s haunting orchestral melodies – and it becomes harder for Pierre to juggle the impossible.
Zeller illustrates the dilemma through a fable or metaphor about a forest, hence the name. A man in pursuit of a deer sinks deeper and deeper into the woods, his surroundings continuing to be more and more of the same, as the night falls and he eventually loses himself. A similar analogy, on wearing a mask (ironic, given the times we’re in) and trying to pull it off, also details Pierre’s predicament – an adulterer who wants to rip the mask off and return to normality, while at the same time hunting down the doe. Never have I seen the conflicts of an affair conveyed so creatively in a fascinating psychodrama. Eventually, after several repeated scenes albeit with subtle differences (note the aforementioned ‘more and more of the same’ comment), Pierre tells the lie so much that he becomes it. He is, as the tale goes, lost.
And we are too, to an extent, though I assure you that that is – at least for the most part – a good thing. Paul McGann (the Doctor Who star known only as ‘Man 2’ in the script) often swaps places with Richards, who is Man 1. Is this a Jekyll and Hyde type situation, where one is a different personality based on the other? Or, maybe Man 1 is projecting Man 2 onto his social interactions, not least because there are dream-like moments throughout the production, where a Man in Black (Finbar Lynch, who looks like The Demon Headmaster as an alien with his painted white face) replaces Pierre’s Male Friend (Silas Carson) on occasion. I am more convinced of this interpretation when the playtext informs me that MIB and MF are in fact two different characters. Ambiguity in Zeller’s The Forest is both a blessing and curse for director Jonathan Kent, in that when done right in the 90-minute play, it is truly thrilling, but a failure to ground key details creates confusion, rather than curiosity.
Scenes may repeat themselves, but we get closer to the truth – something which Pierre, timid and unstable as he is – struggles to provide. Some may not like the abstraction in the piece, and at times I didn’t, though the air of mystery and deception here – which is gritty and intense – is rather the point. Characters which previously appeared plain and two-dimensional (such as, unfortunately, Gina McKee’s ‘Wife’, who first appears as a soothing, placating individual with little personality which is independent) get a new depth when they learn more information. Millie Brady’s Daughter, meanwhile, is redundant and underused as a test of Pierre’s initial moral compass on adultery, after we learn that she has been cheated on by her ex-partner. So rare are her appearances in the play that the point one assumes her character – rigid, stubborn and jarring that she is – is trying to make is long forgotten.
Yet with that said, The Forest nestles comfortably in Zeller’s portfolio as a thought-provoking, multi-layered play – if you’re willing to allow yourself to get lost in it.
The Forest is now playing at Hampstead Theatre until 12 March. The show will be captioned on 8 March and audio described for the matinee performance on 12 March.
Production Images: The Other Richard.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The Forest’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.