Get our free email newsletter with just one click

The Sea, the Sea

Radio reviews. Photo: Shutterstock Photo: Shutterstock

It must have been hell for theatre director Charles Arrowby to have had to focus on other people. We meet him in retirement by the sea, free to concentrate on his favourite subject – himself. Jeremy Irons is superlative in the role of one of modern literature’s most complex characters, bathing in self-obsession, relishing a little light schadenfreude.

Robin Brooks’ elegant two-part adaptation of Iris Murdoch’s 1978 Booker Prize winner begins with an extract from Arrowby’s memoirs, which Irons booms out with weighty bombast. The theatricality of his public face alternates with a voice redolent of private fears and compulsions. Iron’s careful enunciation never flags, even when bemoaning the vision of a monster in the surf or a ghost in his house, Shakespearean motifs all.

The director is theatre veteran (Royal Shakespeare Company, Birmingham Rep etc) Bill Alexander, who adroitly orchestrates the group scenes, Arrowby’s actor friends and ex-lovers spilling over from his memoirs. Sharply-defined performances include Maggie Steed’s, a ragged survivor as Arrowby’s first love, and Tim McInnerny as the actor “going to seed as a fat, charming TV villain” while nursing properly villainous thoughts.

Between the thunder and babble of various encounters, Arrowby gathers his thoughts, and it’s as if Alexander has specified that a spotlight pick him out in the darkness. The slipperiness with which Iron imbues his character is finally shed when tragedy and reality force him to confront his self-deception. The parallels with Prospero from The Tempest are underlined in the redemptive finale when Arrowby vows to live differently, doing “tiny good things”.

We need your help…

When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.

The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.

We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.

Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.

Subscribers to The Stage get 10% off The Stage Tickets’ price
Jeremy Irons and a redoubtable cast find Shakespearean allusions in a gripping Iris Murdoch dramatisation directed by Bill Alexander