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”.