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Florian Zeller’s brand of psychological theatre in which fractured inner states are expressed through form is undeniably slick. Like his Oscar-winning film, The Father (adapted from his play), this story of infidelity scrambles chronology and blends memory with fantasy to prove the slippery nature of reality. Part of its charm is in the unscrambling, though it remains a moot point whether style wins out over substance here.
The story is a moral one – of unfaithfulness and its consequences – presented in the mould of a crime thriller. It revolves around Pierre, a distinguished surgeon whose affair leaves him unbalanced, possibly murderous.
He is a split self on stage, bifurcated through guilt and subterfuge, and his dominant half, Man 1, is superlatively performed by Toby Stephens, alongside Man 2 (Paul McGann). “Scenes play over and over again in my head,” he says, and they do on stage, too, with small variations each time, so that no one truth can be pinned down. Stephens has a casual entitlement but also shades of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in his secret desire to be caught, to confess and be punished.
Translated by Zeller’s long-term collaborator, Christopher Hampton, The Forest is masterfully executed and captivating to watch, but without the same emotional depth and power of The Father. A jigsaw with a piece missing, the story allows us to project our own meaning in its gaps, but even then it feels slightly flat at times, and too bound up in Zeller’s signature style, which plays out like a similarly repeating game.
It bears the intrigue of a thriller but resorts to cliches of the genre, too: the anonymous phone calls, the loose cannon of a lover, the quietly suspicious wife. Every woman on stage is not only betrayed but appears flat, particularly the lover (Angel Coulby), whose obsessive impulses veer into the “bunny boiler” stereotype. The wife (exquisitely played by Gina McKee) appears deliberately like a cipher, too. This may well be a reflection of the reduced way in which Man 1 sees them but they lack credibility as a result.
Whatever its shortcomings, we cannot help but be seduced by this production. McKee sends shivers down the spine in the play’s final moments, and the rest of the cast is universally strong, especially a surreal, whey-faced interrogator played with controlled menace by Finbar Lynch.
Elegantly directed by Jonathan Kent, every element of the stagecraft shines and delights. Rooms light up out of darkness with thrilling surprise: the lover’s bedsit above the family drawing room, an office space in which dreams are revealed and grubby bargains made. A single, mono-note of dread in Isobel Waller-Bridge’s sound design buzzes across the drama. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is striking, and Anna Fleischle’s naturalistic set design is a good foil to the play’s skewed reality.
The three rooms gradually begin connecting and at their most effective they capture the simultaneity of the moment for which Zeller seems so often to be striving.
The end does not yield the catharsis of a crime thriller but appears, eerily, on pause – as if it will carry on repeating its churn of inner turmoil after we have left the auditorium.
If this is all an elaborate exploration of guilt, it is guaranteed to spark fevered discussion after the lights go up, even if it has melted away by the morning after.
• At Hampstead theatre, London, until 12 March.