Review: Sunset at the Villa Thalia, National Theatre

“Something Greek sounds good”

It’s the ideal isn’t it, shipping off to a Greek island to escape grey clouds in June and point-settling about plus ones, and its what Charlotte and Theo have done in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s new play Sunset at the Villa Thalia. He’s a playwright seeking inspiration, she’s an actress who loves him very much, and so they’re renting a cottage on the idyllic isle of Skiathos. But the year is 1967, a momentous year in Greece’s political history, and the American couple they’ve bumped into at the port aren’t quite as benign as they might seem.

Harvey and June are swiftly invited over for drinks on the terrace and as tongues are loosened on the ouzo, we discover that he works for the US government in a shadowy role. With these heavy hints of the CIA, we discover what Kaye Campbell is up to as it was American intervention – in aid of stifling the threat of Soviet expansion – that arguably partly facilitated the military coup that’s about to happen. And it’s not just nations he’s manipulating but the people around him, as he convinces Charlotte and Theo to buy the cottage from its desperate owners who are emigrating to Australia.

Though the sun-baked stone of Hildegard Bechtler’s design and the warm tones of Natasha Chivers’ lighting are wistfully dreamy, and Kaye Campbell infuses his writing with a good measure of comedy, Sunset at the Villa Thalia actually deals with something more dramatically compelling in Simon Godwin’s occasionally over-emphatic production. Greece here is a microcosm of the global battle waging between capitalism and communism, with Harvey as the totemic figure for neoliberalism and its determination that their version of democracy is the only kind.

Ben Miles is excellent here, creating a real man out of all that political posturing and moving too in the second act, set nearly a decade later, when much has changed; Elizabeth McGovern displays considerable comic chops as the damaged June, the flipside to her husband’s, or even her nation’s, behaviour; and as the Brits, Pippa Nixon and Sam Crane are beautifully matched, her moral indignation strong enough for two but undermined by their own actions, their own intervention in the lives of the Greek family from whom they bought the house.

There are moments when you wonder if the focus of the play could have been a little more Hellenic – any exploration of life under The Junta is jettisoned in favour of a wider attack on US foreign policy, folding in Chile in 1973. Which has its place here sure, but also leads the ending to feel more melodramatically bolted on than it should, lessening the dramatic impact of a play that should indict its Western audiences more fiercely. 

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 4th August

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