Donmar Warehouse; Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, London
One false move tears a family apart in a superb adaptation of Ruben Östlund’s avalanche film. And folk song collector Cecil Sharp meets his match in Nell Leyshon’s charming new play
Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film, is, on the face of it, begging not to be adapted for the stage: it involves a majestic alpine landscape and skiing – and that’s just for starters. It is also an uncategorisable, ambiguous narrative that risks being misunderstood and that, in the wrong hands, could have turned out to be a snowy bellyflop. But it’s precisely because of its high-risk content that this show is a triumph and a wonder to behold. Director Michael Longhurst and his tremendous cast have pulled off a dazzling production that entertains and unsettles, and Tim Price must take a bow too, as his adaptation is even more nuanced than the film.
In front of us, a snowy mountainscape (designer Jon Bausor) is bathed in icy blue light (Lucy Carter) and framed by a gauzy proscenium arch as though to say (a matter pertinent to what follows): this is engineered, this is theatre, keep your head. The skiing issue is stunningly resolved as the more balanced of cast members swoop dynamically down the slanted stage into the stalls, while others stay put and practise on-the-spot, sporty, disco-like choreography with neon-bright skis.
All this – the flashing skis, the bodies bent double like bunnies, the frenzied Vivaldi soundtrack – might make you laugh with pleasure, but what happens next will wipe the smile off your face. The story hinges on a single false move: Tomas, brilliantly played by Rory Kinnear with blokeish pallor and a bordering-on-terminal lack of self-knowledge, is on a family holiday, and, after a first day on the slopes, is having lunch with his wife and children when what is understood to be a deliberately engineered avalanche swoops down – no problem, except it appears to be out of control. Tomas grabs his phone and runs away from his wife and children. His act might be small and forgivable – a shameful reflex – except that he denies it, won’t apologise, and it becomes a potentially all-encompassing, defining betrayal.
The story is partly about shifting scale: is Tomas’s action a detail or a domestic avalanche? Lyndsey Marshal is marvellously convincing as Ebba, his honest grafter of a wife who, at first, laughs hysterically as her way of expressing hurt. Their children (Florence Hunt and Henry Hunt) are astonishingly natural, bickering with each other and suffering their parents fallout. Their skiing friends, Sule Rimi as Mats and Siena Kelly as Jenny, who juggle related issues about trust, are amusing too, and Nathalie Armin is spot-on as Charlotte, self-appointed femme fatale of the slopes. Throughout, the actors slalom between slapstick and trauma and their slippery story never misses its footing.
Folk is based on the life of Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), who was a Hampstead resident and a Cambridge-educated collector of English folk songs – an important but controversial enterprise. Nell Leyshon’s new play centres on Sharp’s encounter with two sisters, Louie Hooper and Lucy White, who worked as glovers in Somerset. Her plot is like an unaccompanied voice: fine, subtle and carrying. For the sisters, folk music is a mother tongue (they learned it from their mother, who has just died as the play opens). It is their living heirloom. But after Louie has given Sharp custody of the songs, she reacts with disbelieving horror at the mediocre aspic of his settings. His cultural appropriation is, for her, personal theft. But it is too late to take back her gift about which the real Sharp wrote, presumably to quell his conscience: “exchange is no robbery”.
As Louie, Mariam Haque is wonderful: intense, stricken and inward, an unselfconsciously blunt critic of Sharp’s music, her face comic when most underwhelmed. Her unforced naturalness as a singer brings out the starkness in the folk songs, their unmediated appeal to the heart. Sharp is plausibly played, too, by Simon Robson, as a condescending enthusiast who applies himself to the piano with aplomb. And as Lucy, Sasha Frost gives a vivacious performance as she grabs life amorously by the lapels – or, more specifically, handsome young layabout John (robustly played by Ben Allen). Subtract the “g” from glover, her teasing eyes seem to say, as she hand-stitches the gloves.
Roxana Silbert directs with homely simplicity, supported by musical director Gary Yershon, and the result is a charming, touching, unusual evening that asks: who owns folk song? I wished only that we were not confined to a basement theatre. This play pines for fresh air – what a wonderful outdoor piece it would make – with a field or three in view.
Star ratings (out of five)
Force Majeure ★★★★★