"We were fallible": when Maggie Smith utters that line in Three Tall Women, the "we" is not royal, for all the character's dowager-grandeur, but justified by a simple, if strange, arithmetic. In the second half of Edward Albee's award-winning play, the rich nonagenarian - who is based on the author's adoptive mother and whose querulous, helpless senility Smith conveys with transfixing tragicomic brilliance in the first act - lies comatose in bed after a stroke. You quickly realise, though, that this is a dummy now, for Smith returns as the same figure at 72 and forms a trio, at the bedside, with other versions of the character as a young woman and in middle age.
A life is seen in self-communing cross-section - a dramatic conceit which gives two of the women access to daunting previews of the increasingly embattled and embittered creature into whom they evolve and the chance to pull rank, with ill-concealed schadenfreude, on their juniors. Demonstrating both how we're incapable of imagining who (or what) we will become and how the people we once were would be strangers to us, the set-up offers all three women the opportunity of vehemently denying one another. By this paradoxical means, Albee's astringent, witty, undeluded play arrives at an acceptance of its heroine: the woman who threw him out for being a homosexual here gets the last word, three times over.
In this revival of Anthony Page's excellent production, Sara Kestelman and Samantha Bond replace the original actresses as, respectively, the caustically cynical mid-lifer and the hopeful, idealistic 26-year-old who still clutches ("I'm a good girl") the image of herself as ingenue. The effect of these cast changes is to make the work feel both tighter and more humanely balanced than it did previously. One of my caveats when I first reviewed the piece was that, as it moves towards the wintry stoicism of Maggie Smith's final speeches, the play underacknowledges the extent to which we lose certain forms of wisdom as we get older.
This objection seems much less valid now. Ms Bond, who has a warmer, more sympathetic stage presence than Anastasia Hille, emphasises the emotional consternation rather than the recoiling priggishness of the youngest version. Indicating that there was a time when this woman may have possessed the virtue of tolerance, she looks on, with stricken incredulity, as Ms Kestelman's mockingly rueful, superbly passionate mid-lifer rails across the bed at the silent, estranged son. The fury of this attack, the raging insistence of the rejection, is fuelled, Kestelman's performance suggests, by a raw grief which she would not be prepared to admit to herself, let alone the boy.
Playing the rambling 92-year-old in Act One, Maggie Smith has to be seen to be believed. The sudden subsidings into wretched senile tears; the frustrated, dismissive flappings of her arm as her mind gropes impotently for a mislaid fact; the comic cunning with which she tries to cover over her patches of blankness; the beadily aggressive suspicion and the moments of alert cackling triumph - Smith's performance which, at the moment, is firmly on the right side of caricature, captures all this and more. It shows you a far from unfamiliar type: the person who hardened into a monster because she has had the burden of being strong for everyone in the family. Not to be missed.
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