Prolific French playwright Florian Zeller returns to familiar emotional terrain with his latest work to be staged in the UK, The Height of the Storm. As with the play that made his name, The Father, Zeller explores the complexities of parent-child relationships and the pain of losing someone you love.
Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce play a married couple, Andre and Madeleine, who have weathered many a storm, remaining together for half a century. It’s repeatedly suggested that one of them may already have died, but the beauty of Zeller’s play – translated, as with all his previous work, by Christopher Hampton – lies in its slipperiness and ambiguity. Nothing is solid. Time is cruel and memory is fragile. Sometimes it seems as if Madeleine is not there at all, as if she exists only in Andre’s mind; at other times it’s like she just popped out to tend the vegetable garden and it’s he who is the ghost in his own home.
Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley play their daughters, shifting convincingly between the rawness of recent bereavement and the pragmatism of a child tending to a frail and ailing parent whose grip on reality is fading.
Anthony Ward’s detailed set, lit with painterly precision by Hugh Vanstone – with its high windows, kitchen clutter and book-lined walls – is at once a handsome family home and a source of consternation. What is to be done with it after it has served its purpose? Is it too much for one person to cope with alone? Would it be sensible to sell it?
Zeller complicates things further by introducing a Man and a Woman: James Hillier and Lucy Cohu. She may be an interloper from Andre’s past; he may be the oily boyfriend of one of Andre’s offspring – or worse, an estate agent come to cast his eye over the house.
Atkins handles the temporal fluctuations of the play incredibly well, but Zeller clearly favours the character of Andre – he even shares a name with the protagonist of The Father. Pryce subtly conveys his sudden bafflement and terror as his grip on reality slips. Sometimes he’s proud and obstreperous, sometimes angry, sometimes alarmed, his eyes filled with fear. But it’s Drew (who also starred in The Father) who provides the play’s real emotional anchor, playing another woman struggling to hold it together while her father drifts further away from her.
In the past I’ve found Zeller’s plays dispassionate and wearyingly Parisian, clever and elegant but alienating. Jonathan Kent’s production does not avoid all of those pitfalls. It resists emotional excess. It’s frustratingly polite and theatrically static. But it pinpoints that sense of unsteadiness that comes from seeing a once formidable parent diminished by age, the pain of the things left unsaid, the arguments unresolved, and it has a disorientating, melancholic quality that’s genuinely moving.