Hallelujah! Josie Rourke has finally staged an original play written by a woman at the Donmar Warehouse. Until now, all the original works staged during her tenure have been written by men. But now we have Splendour, an early work from the very talented Abi Morgan (Suffragette, The Iron Lady) and it’s a gem.
Splendour tells the story of four women. Four women, in one room, in one evening.
The room is in the palatial residence of an absent dictator in an unnamed country. Waiting for him is his wife Micheline (Sinead Cusack) and Kathryn (Genevieve O’Reilly), the Western photojournalist commissioned to take his photo.
Only the dictator in question is running very, very late. And the sounds of gunfire from the streets outside and rumours of revolution swirling in the air tell us that something has also gone very, very wrong.
But Micheline is adamant the photos will be taken. So, to entertain – and distract – her guest, she employs her long-suffering friend Genevieve (Michelle Fairley) to lend the room an air of conviviality and keeps a young woman, Gilma (Zawe Ashton), nearby as translator.
But shouldn’t the women flee instead? With the revolutionaries heading for the residence, for how much longer can this masquerade be played? Kathryn is perplexed at these women, seemingly in denial about the war being waged on the streets. Frustratingly she can’t even speak the language yet she begins to gauge what is going on in the room. We watch as she watches, reading the body language, beginning to understand perfectly what is being played out in front of her.
The vodka is poured, the gunfire gets closer. And under this pressure, the secrets begin to tumble out and facades start to fall. The end is drawing near and, eventually, each of these women is going to have to make a life-defining choice.
The writing from Abi Morgan is excellent. Complicated and creative. The same scenes replay again and again, but from different perspectives, the increasing alcohol levels and encroaching gunfire subtly but profoundly changing the way the scene is replayed.
The acting from all four women is excellent. There’s a tendency to stereotypes in the writing – the icy dictator’s wife, gritty photojournalist and opportunistic translator trying to grab anything she can from the palace to sell on the black market. But each of the actresses brings depth and nuance to lift each character from the page and make them engaging, believable. Three-dimensional.
Sinead Cusack dominates the room as Micheline, the absent dictator’s wife. There’s something of the Imelda Marcos about her Prada shoes and perfectly groomed appearance. But it’s the shadows behind the eyes that makes Sinead’s performance so good. This is not a woman in as much denial as she seems.
And Michelle Fairley was given a bit of hospital pass as the seemingly fragile Genevieve but she infuses the character with a steely determination and the shifting power dynamic between these supposed best friends – a friendship based on secrets and lies – is the attention-grabber in the production.
Direction comes from Robert Hastie and it is tight and smart. Shame we couldn’t have had a female director directing a play about women written by a woman but hey, I guess that was too much to ask. One day perhaps this will become as acceptable as men directing plays written by men about men. One day.
But nevertheless, how good it was to see a play about power and human fallibility told from a female perspective. Dear Donmar, please don’t leave it so long again to platform a female playwright. We need to embrace diversity.
Donmar Warehouse, London to September 26, 2015
- Genevieve O’Reilly (Kathryn) and Sinead Cusack (Micheline) in Splendour at the Donmar Warehouse – photo by Johan Persson
- Genevieve O’Reilly (Kathryn) in Splendour at the Donmar Warehouse – photo by Johan Persson
- Sineaad Cusack (Micheleine), Michelle Fairley (Genevieve) and Zawe Ashton (Gilma) in Splendour at the Donmar Warehouse – photo by Johan Persson
- Michelle Fairley (Genevieve) in Splendour at the Donmar Warehouse – photo by Johan Persson