The return of Jeremy Irons

A play based on a cult novel brings Jeremy Irons back to the West End stage after 18 years away. Michael Coveney reports
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After a hard day's rehearsal on Embers, a new stage play by Christopher Hampton based on Sandor Marai's lately rediscovered 1942 Hungarian novel, Jeremy Irons and Patrick Malahide are relaxing over a drink. The two actors are joined by Hampton and the director, Michael Blakemore.

The book and play are about friendship, the cathartic reunion in a remote Hungarian castle, after 40 years, between two 75-year-old men, Henrik (Irons) and Konrad (Malahide). They pursue "the truth" of what happened with Krisztina, Henrik's beautiful wife, now long dead, whom they both loved.

Irons, who enters the bar with a piratical flourish, superbly swathed in jerkin and scarves, and mightily booted, is no stranger to such triangular liaisons. As Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, the series that launched him into superstardom, he fell in love with his best friend's sister.

Such happy coincidences ring around our conversation - Malahide and Blakemore have both, separately, worked on Hampton translations of Chekhov; Irons appeared in a television film of Hampton's Tales from Hollywood - but I resist mentioning that Malahide also played opposite Irons's real-life wife, Sinead Cusack, in a 1991 West End play, Map of the Heart, about betrayal and adultery.

Irons was last on stage in London as Richard II in 1988 and has been looking for a new play "that says something interesting. This really is the first to have come my way for several years."

Malahide, an actor of brooding intensity and cruel eyes, who is a household face from The Singing Detective, Middlemarch and Ngaio Marsh's The Alleyn Mysteries, gave his most recent, compelling stage performance three years ago as an ageing, possibly corrupt, former Irish prime minister in Sebastian Barry's Hinterland at the National.

The two actors agree that Hampton ("He writes like a Bentley," says Irons) has improved the novel, compressing the story into "real" time, deleting the flashbacks while not seeming to leave anything out. The book's two friends were students at military academy together, Henrik born to the ranks, Konrad a poor boy whose Polish parents sacrificed everything for his advancement. In the third of Hampton's three long scenes, Henrik does all the talking. Does that mean Konrad does all the acting?

"Funnily enough, we got on to that today," says Irons, sipping on a Bloody Mary he ordered up with a gleeful cry of: "Cocktails!" He explains: "Konrad's non-answering, his choice not to, is as eloquent as if he spoke." But surely Konrad must know, and Malahide must have decided, what actually happened? Had Krisztina urged him to murder Henrik? Had they really had sex, and how often?

"Yes, I have decided," says Malahide, testing his glass of chardonnay for any weakness. "And I'm not telling you. I'm not even telling Jeremy. Had I, as Konrad, answered the question outright I would have impugned the honour of the woman in the chair whom we both loved, whatever the truth of what happened."

"And even if Patrick has decided - I'll never know for sure - that Krisztina wanted him to kill Henrik," adds Irons, "it need not be certain that she meant what she said, even if she said it!"

At which point Blakemore, the wise and brilliant director who has arrived at the age of the on-stage protagonists (Irons is a mere 57, Malahide just 60, so make-up is called for), declares that the need for specific answers to specific questions falls away as they approach death: "The thing that matters, the only one, is the passion in your heart."

Embers will strike many playgoers as similar in scale and tone to such recent West End hits as Art (which Hampton translated from the French original) and Heroes (which Tom Stoppard, ditto). It combines the friendship theme of the first with the nostalgic military reminiscence of the second, as well as having only three characters (Jean Boht as the housekeeper appears briefly) and being short.

It should have an interval. Blakemore thinks they may insert one, "as Christopher has written a superb curtain line at the end of the second scene".

"Whereas Art," says Hampton, "is a form of pure comedy, this is wholly tragic. And the story is imbued with a strong sense of a world, the Austro-Hungarian empire, which has disappeared for ever. The last remnants are going as they talk. In the early part of the last century, there was a current of feeling, especially in Vienna, from which many of the ideas of the modern world arrived. It's all gone now. But we are nostalgic for it."

Was Irons nostalgic, I ask, for a return to the routine of theatre? There are so many Irons in the fire of cinema these days that a quiet poke among the embers of theatre must make a nice change. "It's wonderful to be in one place for four months," he agrees. "The past two years have been crazy. I find myself gradually getting back in touch with theatre, and it's lovely."

"Theatre is where the actor is ultimately in charge," says Blakemore. "We rehearse collaboratively. I give the actors unwanted notes. They question them ["As nicely as possible," Malahide chips in]. But when it gets under way and the critics are in, it's the actor finally up there calling the shots. And that's what draws us back. It's not only pleasure; it's the responsibility of making sure the audience are not shuffling about.

"This play sets up a denouement and then deliberately disappoints us. The audience must be left with the ultimate unknowability of what happened, and that's why it's such an intriguing play and, hopefully, such a resonant one."

The script will no doubt give a good work-out to Irons's richly mournful and melancholic voice, and the impenetrability of Konrad should be right up Malahide's brutal alley. Malahide is not averse to sharing some of his decisions about Konrad with us: that he has been hiding things all his life and that the only way he could have crossed Europe in wartime was to have been related to the security forces in some way. "I've worked out he speaks seven languages, and if he has more than one passport, we are definitely in Le Carré country..."

Malahide was born Patrick Duggan and changed his name because there was already a Patrick Duggan in Equity. As P F Duggan, he wrote television drama about police inquiries and counter-intelligence. So he should prove ideal casting as a man who keeps his cards close to his chest.