What would I do? You’ll have asked yourself this question a dozen times by the time you’re through watching Force Majeure, whether that’s the sharply original 2014 Swedish film by Ruben Östlund, the considerably blunter English language remake starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in 2020, or Tim Price’s new stage adaptation, now showing at Donmar Warehouse.
It’s a simple question: how would you react if you found yourself, as Tomas (Rory Kinnear) does, enjoying a mid-ski lunch with your family when an incoming avalanche threatens to kill you all? Would you stay or would you be like Tomas, who grabs his phone and bolts without a thought for his wife and two kids? It’s a hair-raising premise but only the instigating incident for Östlund who is more concerned with the domestic aftershock of that decision. Because, as it turns out, the avalanche doesn’t kill anyone; it stops short and now Tomas and his family must live with that choice. Less obviously dramatic than a fatal snowslide maybe, but the resulting tremors are grimly entertaining to watch as Tomas tries to deny his cowardice to his wife Ebba, played by Lyndsey Marshal.
As staged by Michael Longhurst, the production hits varying degrees of success. There has been a valiant attempt at staging a story that could be described as unstageable (the film is, after all, set on a majestic alpine landscape; the Donmar theatre seats just 251). The set, by Jon Bausor, is a dazzling white polystyrene-looking slope, frosted over in cool blue lighting by Lucy Carter. The production attempts to find further ambience in its comic elements. Longhurst hams it up, placing neon jumpsuit-clad skiers dancing in sync to Avicii presumably to whip up a sort of après-ski vibe.
The acting can’t be faulted. Kinnear is believable and slightly detestable as Tomas (a role that Östlund described as “the most pathetic male character on film”). The actor toggles, ever so gently, between pitiful and infuriating with a simple smirk or the way he says “OK” like it’s an inconvenience to even respond. Likewise, Marshal delivers a barely restrained performance as Ebba, which is just what the role calls for. But trapped within the confines of the adapted writing – some of which robs the production of the original’s ambiguity and distance – they seem to lose contact with the material. Instead, the play pushes Kinnear and Marshal into more comic turns, slapstick even. An ongoing gag involving a custodian who interrupts at awkward moments is played for laughs one too many times.
The play is perfectly enjoyable with some genuinely quite funny moments, but it fails to conjure the same uneasy feeling as the darkly comic original. Östlund’s film uses that first question – “what would I do?” – to ask something deeper, something that cleaves closer to “who am I?” Price’s play is content to traverse the surface.
‘Force Majeure’ runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 5 February
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