Thursday 2 June 2016

Sunset at the Villa Thalia at the National, or, I'm Sorry You Have Failed to Interest Me

Note: This is a review of the final preview on Tuesday 31st May 2016. The press night took place last night.

This performance was one of those occasions when I arrived at the theatre feeling not much in the mood for an evening inside. Great theatre can dispel such moods, but sadly this play (my first encounter with the work of Alexi Kaye Campbell) proved to be a dull, unconvincing evening.

Sunset takes place on the Greek island of Skiathos in 1967 and 1976. In Act One we meet playwright Theo (Sam Crane) and his wife Charlotte (Pippa Nixon) who have rented a house there so that Theo can write – this is apparently easier on a Greek island than in Camberwell. Into this alleged paradise they invite (for reasons which are not convincing) an American state department official Harvey (Ben Miles) who is from the beginning one of the more obvious spies you are likely to encounter, and his stereotypically ditzy blonde wife June (Elizabeth McGovern). Once they turn up Harvey dominates the rest of the act. He tells pretty much everybody what they are thinking, why they are thinking it and, by the interval, he has talked Theo and Charlotte into agreeing to buy the rented house from a Greek uncle and daughter who want to emigrate to Australia.

 The trouble with this is that Campbell basically never allows anybody on stage to really challenge Harvey's assertions, an unconvincing position. Thus Harvey claims that the reason he and June are there is because his eyes met Charlotte's across the taverna and they were instantly, strongly attracted – neither performances nor script make this believable. More seriously, he articulates an unchallenged American idealism. I find it very difficult to believe that in 1967, with the Vietnam War (to name but one aspect) already well underway, the kind of simplistic representation of Cold War rhetoric Campbell writes for Harvey would go so unchallenged by non-Americans.  Most unconvincing of all, though, is the consequences for our ensemble of the news of the colonels' coup which arrives via radio at the end of the act. If you know any Greek history and you buy a programme, you've probably clocked that the setting is designed to coincide with this. Two things become swiftly clear, firstly, that the dubious Harvey has no problem with this coup at all (and has probably been involved in it – once again this barely seems to trouble our unconvincingly trusting English pair). But secondly, at the start of Act Two, that despite the coup they have gone ahead and bought the house anyway and that the coup has not put any barriers in the way of their travelling frequently to Greece, or raised any concerns about bringing their children there – all of which struck me as thoroughly unconvincing.

A related problem is that none of this is made to matter enough. The themes of problematic American intervention in other countries, of faith in and the innocence of the United States are well worn ones, Campbell sadly finds nothing new to say and fails to locate significance in the lives of these characters to make worthwhile our spending a little over two hours with them. In Act Two it is true that an attempt to find a point to the evening is made, but it hinges on a sudden realisation on the part of Charlotte about Harvey's dubious character – the problem being that that dubious character was pretty glaringly obvious from the outset.

One final script issue deserves comment, the decision to make Theo a playwright. It is always risky to start talking about the mechanics of theatre during an actual theatrical performance and here it is another risk which doesn't pay off. The device becomes a further sledgehammer for hitting us over the head with the familiar points the play wishes to make.

The performers stuck in this do their best with what they have, but none of them transcend it. If only the play had told us more, and more subtly, about things we could not learn from other sources it might have been a different story – revelations when they come seem pat rather than earned. Simon Godwin's direction and Hildegard Bechtler's set are both solidly done, but can't rescue the work either.

Overall a pretty dull two and a bit hours which failed to make me really interested in anybody on stage. To be avoided.

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