Infidelity: one of the most painful of human experiences; one of the most fruitful areas for a dramatist to explore. Farceurs might concentrate on the mechanics of betrayal, but some playwrights have sought innovative dramatic forms to express the emotional insights revealed in such crises. In Harold Pinter’s 1978 Betrayal the ingenious move was to tell the story of an affair backwards. In Passion Play (1981), Peter Nichols’ technical innovation is to split both the main characters – husband James and wife Eleanor – into two, using the stage to show their inner turmoil.
At its best, this is mercilessly brilliant. And in David Leveaux’s production, superbly acted by the central quartet, it produces scenes of painfully raw honesty. When James (Owen Teale), a mild-mannered, rumpled picture restorer, returns home to his (loved) wife of 25 years after his first lunch with sultry photographer Kate, up pops his alter ego (Oliver Cotton) as the voice of conscience, urging him to say where he has been. He doesn’t. And soon he and his shadow are at odds, the inner man voicing uncomfortable truths while the outer man maintains the façade.
Even better is Eleanor’s double. As Zoë Wanamaker’s Eleanor sits stock-still at a café table, reading a letter that confirms her husband’s infidelity, her bitter alter ego (Samantha Bond) appears, expressing the sickening shock and agony of realisation. Soon all four actors are on stage, articulating the characters’ divided selves and disorientation. Nichols offers no comforting solution to the painful dilemma of security versus adventure. And the technique opens up fascinating questions about identity: what it is, how fluid it might be.
The kernel of the play is tremendous but what surrounds it is less inspiring. The set-up is slow, involves some clunky exposition and feels peculiarly inauthentic, given the intense authenticity of the feelings explored. Kate, the mistress, is a weirdly unconvincing character: a voracious man-eater, who seems designed to represent the changes in social and personal mores that the play touches on. For a serial seductress, her chat-up lines are bizarrely cheesy. Not only is this hard for Annabel Scholey (who looks stunning) to play, it also makes the drama less emotionally and morally complex than if she were a more likeable character.
But the production is worth seeing for Zoë Wanamaker alone. Her awful journey from wounded fury to psychological disintegration is minutely observed, desolately believable and the true passion (as in torment) of the play.