Review: Splendour (Donmar Warehouse, London)

In a presidential palace, a dictator’s wife Micheleine, her best friend Genevieve, a sassy photographer Kathryn, and a kleptomaniac translator Gilma pace the room. The photographer is here to photograph Micheleine and her husband, but he is late. On the outside, an uprising is happening; firebombs and riots on the streets, the north is revolting. But inside the room, the four women tell their stories, as the steady realisation of fear and impending downfall take effect on them.

For Genevieve, it’s an opportunity to get revenge.
For Kathryn, it’s an opportunity to get the photograph of her career.
For Gilma, it’s an opportunity to admit to her roots.
For Micheleine, it’s not an opportunity at all.

The words…

Abi Morgan’s play is sharp! Basically it’s an hour and a half of repetition as the same scene is played over and over again. But it’s far more exciting than that sounds. Each time it is reset we learn a little bit more about the women and the situation they have found themselves in. It could easily have been a mess, but is far from it under the direction of Robert Hastie. Each replay of the scene provides more detail, an extra layer of emotion or history – it’s the onion modern drama, and Morgan has done a mighty fine job of fitting it all together.

Then there are the language differences. Luckily for us, all four women do speak English throughout. But as Kathryn is the foreign outsider, she needs an interpreter. Instead of bogging down the text with repeated translations, Morgan hints throughout at Gilma’s shoddy translation (often using it as an opportunity to provide light humour) reminding us of the language issue but allowing the women to engage directly with one another.

The talent…

There’s not a lot wrong here, that’s for sure! Sinéad Cusack as Micheleine is the standout – a typical hard-faced hostess at the beginning, by the end she has become a fractured lost woman holding on to her pride. She even takes off her zebra print shoes – a sure fire sign of being destroyed inside.

Genevieve O’Reilly as Kathryn is also spot-on casting, and I’m not sure there’s anyone else in the country who plays the tortured soul quite as well as Michelle Fairley. It took me a while to warm to Zawe Ashton’s Gilma, but that’s possibly because for the first half she is more narrator than a character.

The design…

It’s a simple design from Peter McKintosh. A grand window looks out at the darkness, a broken chandelier, two seats and a ring of broken glass. It really works though! The ring of glass helps show the destruction closing in on them, but ultimately turns the stage into a verbal boxing ring that the four women frequently pace around. The black window was perfect at signifying the world outside, although part of me expected a man in scream mask to run up from the other side at any minute. But all that combined with excellent lighting design and a steady build up of explosions and rumbling in the created a tension that kept the narrative moving along at a nice pace.

Special mention to…

Abi Morgan’s words. It could easily have been a big confused mess that left me wondering what the hell I’d seen. Instead the evolution of the women’s stories and the careful handling of their discussions meant it’s hands down one of the best written pieces I’ve seen in some time.

Also special mention to the rude people who got up and left half way through. In a theatre the size of the Donmar, don’t think you weren’t seen by everyone else. Shame on you.

Verdict: ★★★★★

This has to be one of the best things I’ve seen this year. The writing is sharp, the performances are excellent, the direction is (almost) spot on, and all that translates into an hour and a half of excellent theatre. I’m potentially being overly generous unleashing the great five stars, but I came out hugely impressed at the construction of the text and the literature student in me is in charge this morning.

Splendour is running at the Donmar Warehouse until 26th September. Limited availability throughout but tickets are available from the ATG tickets website.

And the seat…

Circle, row B, seat 5. My first time on stage left in the Donmar, and it was literally no different to stage right really. As always some minor leaning is needed to see directly below you from these seats in the circle, but that’s not a problem as you don’t get in the way of the people behind you (or I like to think not…).

Donmar Warehouse Circle, Row B, Seat 5
Donmar Warehouse Circle, Row B, Seat 5
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