With a masterly central performance by Jeremy Irons, back on stage after an absence of 18 years, this rare, civilised treat is a psychological drama of friendship betrayed.
In a bleak castle at the foot of the Carpathians, Iron’s Henrik, an austere widower with only a 90-year-old maidservant for company (Jean Boht), greets his former companion Konrad. These once close comrades were officers in the dying years of the Austro-Hungarian empire but have not met for more than four decades, not since Konrad suddenly left for the tropics and Henrik’s wife withdrew from their marriage, before dying.
Sandor Marai’s tantalising tale first lovingly explores the background to Henrik’s early life, then brings these two old friends together for a candle-lit dinner, followed by a night of questioning as Henrik explores the troubled past, set against what could be a guilty silence from the taciturn Konrad.
Richly discursive, the novel seems to defy staging, although it became a compelling six-hour audio book by Paul Scofield. But Christopher Hampton’s adaptation cleverly weaves and compresses Marai’s third-person narrative threads into what virtually becomes a powerfully spoken monologue for Irons as the elegant, still intellectually spry Henrik.
Tensely directed by Michael Blakemore in an austere castle setting by Peter J Davison, the production establishes an air of menace in the opening moments, as Henrik produces a revolver, seeming to aim it at the coach bringing his former friend to the front door, leading to a taut but sustained initial encounter before dinner.
After the interval Konrad - played by Patrick Malahide, ever a master of silky dubiety - sips his host’s fine brandy, coolly observing the situation while refusing to be drawn into a game of recrimination and vengeance, one that builds to a vivid picture of close male bonding forged in envy, love and hate.