The first play in Josie Rourke’s Autumn season of work by living writers at this venue has an all-female cast of strong female characters. BAFTA award-winning writer Abi Morgan’s play was first seen 15 years ago at the Traverse Theatre and this is its long overdue London premiere.
The situation is stark in its claustrophobia. In an unnamed state, perhaps in the former Eastern Europe, four women wait for the arrival of the ruling dictator. They are the absent dictator’s wife (Sinead Cusack), her oldest friend (Michelle Fairley), a Western photographer (Genevieve O’Reilly) who is meant to take his portrait, and an interpreter (Zawe Ashton). As they wait, their dialogues begin to repeat, like a stuck recording.
Splendour is an experiment in form that has been influenced by both Samuel Beckett and Martin Crimp. But the frequent repeats of the same scene, as time flips back and starts again, enable Morgan to explore the inner lives of her characters, as they reveal what they are actually thinking.
The fractured structure of the play also suggests the tensions between the characters, as the strains in the relationship between the dictator’s wife and her friend become clear. And the social antagonism between them and the interpreter gradually mirror the realisation that a civil war is being fought in the city beyond the presidential palace.
Robert Hastie’s excellent production has great clarity and drive, and his actors do him proud: Cusack’s regal but vulnerable wife contrasts with Fairley’s timid friend, while Ashton’s feisty interpreter and O’Reilly’s icy photographer are similarly well drawn. The music of these four women combines to create an intriguing and compelling vision of a world teetering on the edge of destruction.
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