Written by the Hungarian novelist Sandor Marai in 1942, Embers met with great acclaim when it first appeared in English translation 60 years later. But, to my mind, it often reads like an awkward attempt to novelise a play. Perversely, in Christopher Hampton's new stage version, the material has given rise to a correspondingly intractable piece of theatre, and one that proves an arduous vehicle for Jeremy Irons's return to the boards after 18 years.
The setting is a remote Hungarian castle in 1940. An elderly aristocratic General (Irons) awaits the arrival of Konrad (Patrick Malahide), the bosom friend of his boyhood and youth. Four decades previously, Konrad had fled in suspicious circumstances, leaving the General permanently estranged from his now long-dead wife. Now, Konrad has travelled back through war-torn Europe, and the old boys face each other for a final reckoning.
In the novel, there's a long preparatory flashback. Hampton skilfully weaves details from this into the present-tense encounter between the men. He also theatrically heightens the way the story sets up an expectation of retribution that it proceeds to frustrate or, rather, shifts into a different key (at the sound of Konrad's carriage, Irons picks up a revolver and practices his aim through a window).
On the page and on the boards, Embers is a peculiar mix of the stagy (lightning cuts off the electricity in the Gothic castle) and the finespun (elaborate musings on why, say, true friendship is stronger than sexual desire). Watching Michael Blakemore's production, I occasionally felt that Agatha Christie and Henry James, had they been able to collaborate, would have come up with something like this.
It's a weirdly unbalanced evening in more ways than one. The first half (which includes an initial scene between the General and Jean Boht as his ancient nurse) lasts only half an hour, while the second is a protracted near-monologue (and a remarkable feat of memory) by the stiff-backed, bearded Irons, who captures well the fastidious suffering and strategic acumen of the retired officer. Given that his character has brooded on this meeting for years, he fails, however, to communicate any real fascination with Konrad.
This does not give Patrick Malahide much to bounce off. Stationed in an armchair and dressed like a solicitor, he's reduced to performing variations on a wary frown, as the General rabbits on, narrowing down his inquiry to the key question: did his wife know that Konrad intended to kill him in a hunting "accident"?
The speech imbalance feels contrived and Konrad's refusal to answer the questions doesn't reverberate with requisite implication. Besides, the actors are too young to have reached the point where "everything that once made our hearts burst ... is less than the dust the wind blows across the graveyard".
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