One of my least favourite genres is Middle Class Adultery as I always think that there’s too little at stake. It’s not like Othello where the merest suspicion of cheating on your husband will get you a dagger through the chest; in modern times as long as you make sure you get the good CDs then you might as well leave the offending partner. Peter Nichols’ Passion Play certainly makes me examine my prejudice: it succeeds by dint of a playfully witty script, some intriguing ideas about the nature of monogamy and four heartfelt, emotionally rich performances. If nothing else I learned that the reason I think that adultery lacks significance has probably something to do with being a man.
Eleanor (Zoë Wanamaker) and James (Owen Teale) are comforting their friend Kate (Annabel Scholey) on the death of her lover Albert. Kate is the young common-law widow who stole the much older Albert from the couple’s friend Agnes (Sian Thomas). Agnes is still bitter and feels that her quest to destroy Kate is a case of “fighting evil“. Eleanor thinks her friend should be more forgiving, leading Agnes to say, with an irony Eleanor can’t immediately appreciate, “you can only tell me to forgive because you haven’t the vaguest idea how this experience feels“. Needless to say Eleanor gets to feel this experience very soon as Kate starts to pursue her husband.
What marks Passion Play out from the usual run-of-the-mill adultery piece (such as Stoppard’s wildly overpraised The Real Thing) is the intriguing idea of having both Eleanor and James played by two actors, one showing how the character acts in the real world, the other showing the thoughts underlying the outward projections. Samantha Bond and Oliver Cotton both give accounts of their respective character’s psyches which perfectly complement, yet give an extra dimension, to their worldly counterparts.
The only weak part of the writing is the woman who’s the necessary catalyst for the events. Kate is an amoral seducer of men’s husbands – the older the better – and pretty much any man she comes into contact with. Her life consists of swanning round the world, buying expensive clothes, taking the occasional photograph to be exhibited in modish West End galleries, and having an incredible amount of sex. In many respects she seems to have wandered in from a Jackie Collins novel.
However, the play taken as a whole is an intelligent, gripping and acidly funny examination of the lies, the self-deceit and the contradictions that can be the end result of an act as simple as sleeping with a woman who’s not your wife.
Continues at the Theatre Royal until Saturday 27 April.