When Peter Nichols’s searing play of a modern marriage hit with a disruptive blast of sexual infidelity opened in 1981, one critic recounted a joke about Moses coming down from Sinai with the Tablets and announcing: “First the good news – I got ’em down to ten. Now the bad news – adultery's still in.”
Nichols, like Harold Pinter in Betrayal (1978) and Tom Stoppard in The Real Thing (1982) was charting a male menopausal wobble in a rueful, analytical mood of wider cultural disenchantment, and all three writers, at the peak of their form, were being remarkably honest and technically adventurous.
Nichols’s married couple, Eleanor and James – she’s a choral singer, he’s a picture restorer – are trailed by their alter egos, Nell and Jim, who start out as choric critical commentators but develop rapidly into more complicated voices of spiritual turmoil and dismay.
This quartet, organised with great finesse and musical variation by director David Leveaux on a sleek white design by Hildegard Bechtler, is played by Zoë Wanamaker and Samantha Bond as competing bubble-haired versions of the same innocent, soon shattered, recipient of a give-away love letter (no texts or twitters in those days); and by Owen Teale and Oliver Cotton as the baffled love rat whose betrayal is not really fuelled by falling out of love after twenty-five years.
The catalyst of chaos is a sleek, predatory sexual activist, Kate, whose former lover, Albert, now dead, was Oliver’s best friend and husband to Sian Thomas’s vengeful, catty Agnes; Agnes plants that letter, lights the blue touch paper, and stands back.
Kate, played with a stunning insouciance in a Louise Brooks page-boy haircut by Annabel Scholey, is one of those guilt-free creatures who sails above the carnage. She’s a goddess of hedonism in a show marked with outbursts of the sacred music Eleanor sings with the choir.
James can organise his love trysts by listening to these live broadcast concerts on the radio: he pulls on his trousers during the “Agnus Dei” of the Mozart Requiem, expertly aware that there’s only the “Lux aeterna” to come…but Eleanor herself had a one-off fling with Albert on the domestic sofa with Sarah Vaughan on the hi-fi.
This sense of James’s behaviour renewing the marriage creates a rich emotional complexity that transcends even the formal divisions between the characters, and Wanamaker’s performance, especially, is one of infinite pain and dark intimations of mortality.
To 3 August (0844 871 7623)