The casting of real-life couples can be relied on to impart a frisson – whether for good or ill. Take the art-mirroring life volatility of the Burton/Taylor relationship. Great for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on screen; a disaster for the 1983 Private Lives, their one joint venture on stage. Or there are instances of the deliberate, drolly ironic counterpoint.
You couldn't get more devoted long-term partners than Jonathan Pryce and Kate Fahy – a fact that intensified the outrageous tragicomedy of Edward Albee's The Goat in which they appeared as a couple whose marriage founders thanks to the hero's adulterous infatuation with a farmyard animal.
Now we have Harriet Walter and American actor, Guy Paul, the man she married when she was 60. They met when performing in Mary Stuart on Broadway. The evident strength and richness of their rapport and a sense of mature, delightedly shared wit illumine their subtle, searching double-act about a union that was an altogether more mixed blessing. In Clara Brennan's 85-minute two-hander, a dancer and a war correspondent analyse their thirty year marriage, the constant shifts between this garrulous present-tense conversation and the dramatised flashbacks registered with admirable lightness of touch by the Hannah Price's uncluttered, nimble production.
We've got used of late to seeing Walter striking a blow for gender-blind casting with her brilliant portrayals of Brutus and Henry IV in the Donmar's all-women Shakespeare productions. So it's initially something of a surprise to encounter her as a female character again – practising dance steps with concentrated solemnity as the audience take their seats. Her nickname “Boa”, we're told in a striking description by husband Louis, comes from the fact that her arm around his shoulder “sometimes felt like a feather boa, and sometimes it felt like a big ol' snake squeezing the life out of you”.
The actors make a very handsome, elegantly angular couple and thoroughly convince as the glamorous Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the charismatic ballerina who re-enact their original mutual bedazzlement and then investigate the differences that lead – despite their persistent, battered love – to her years of alcoholic depression and to his early retirement, damaged by what he's witnessed, from war reporting. She labels him a “danger junkie”; he recoils from worthy devised dance pieces about, say, migrant workers. “I don't have time for people who snarl at liberal guilt,” she retaliates. She compulsively over-shares; he talks too little about his traumas.
Brennan's script has a knowing literate wit: “Similes truly are the sarcophagus of the image,” remarks Guy drily after one of his wife more fanciful flights. But it has a sizeable dramatic drawback. For reasons that gradually emerge, the couple in the present tend to exchange ready-made conclusions about their past in over-explanatory therapy-speak. There's too much pre-emptive telling. So it says a lot for the performances that they maintain a real feeling of immediacy as Paul beautifully shows Louis' wry patience fraying and Walter superbly conveys precarious, hard-won wisdom often at the mercy of the old passionate defiance. Another double-act soon, please.
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