Review: Splendour, Donmar Warehouse

“If there’s a seam, tell her it’s usually where the anus was.”

An early play from Abi Morgan, Splendour premiered at Edinburgh in 2000 but is only now receiving its London debut at the Donmar Warehouse as part of a season of works by living playwrights. Directed by Robert Hastie who works such wonders on the all-male My Night With Reg, it also marks a nice rebalance with its all-female cast delivering four sensational performances as Morgan replays a single scene four times to allow us into the mind of each of the characters.

They’re in an unidentified dictatorship – perhaps redolent of somewhere in Eastern Europe, perhaps not – and as we come to realise, it is in its final days. And in the presidential palace, beautifully realised by Peter McKintosh, the president’s wife and her best friend are waiting increasingly apprehensively with a photojournalist and her interpreter. As time restarts and replays, Morgan expertly layers up a gripping story whilst exploring the fascinating inner lives of these women.

Sinéad Cusack’s imperious wife is masterful, her glacial control barely slipping even as certainties seem to be stripped from her; Michelle Fairley as her timid compatriot quivers tremulously with untold secrets; Genevieve O’Reilly’s photographer is perhaps a less intriguing prospect though she skilfully makes her as fascinating as she can; and Zawe Ashton is just fabulous as the native northerner embodying much of the conflict that rages unseen outside the gates.

Morgan deals strongly in the nature of concealment, the lies that are being told both to themselves and to others, and the interpreter becomes more powerful here in controlling what is translated and how. And as meaning shifts and motives clarify, even what we consider to be fact becomes less certain. Hastie’s production has its own rhythm which defies traditional notions of pace but I was thoroughly engrossed from start to finish.

Running time: 95 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Johan Persson

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