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Theatre Review: The Forest’s intelligence is just pretence

The production is absorbing. But is it quite as clever as it seems? and, where does French playwright Florian Zeller go from here?

Gina McKee and Paul McGann in The Forest. Photo: The Other Richard

The Forest
Hampstead Theatre, London,
until March 12

The French playwright Florian Zeller has what has turned out to be a lucrative obsession with family life. After his plays The Mother and The Father – the latter turned into an Oscar-winning film with Anthony Hopkins – comes, with a grim inevitability, his take on infidelity. He chooses to call it The Forest, presumably because it’s one of those things couples often find it very difficult to find a way through.

It boasts a superb star performance from Toby Stephens as a middle-aged surgeon who embarks on a passionate love affair with a much younger woman. He’s especially good at playing men under intense pressure – I think, for instance, of him in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg – and this time around it’s fascinating the way the strain is there all the time beneath the urbane and polished exterior.

Zeller complicates matters a bit by having Paul McGann apparently playing the alter ego of the adulterous husband, and it takes a while to feel comfortable with this plot device. McGann, I should say, acquits himself well in challenging circumstances. As the long-suffering and necessarily boring wife, Gina McKee offers a study in dignified despair, and, as the temptress who disrupts all their lives, Angel Coulby radiates danger.

Translated by Christopher Hampton, Zeller’s long-term collaborator, and mounted on Anna Fleischle’s triplex set, The Forest is absorbing drama and the cast give it some welly. I wonder, however, if it’s really quite as clever as it seems to think it is, and I wonder, too, where Zeller goes from here. I suppose sooner or later he will have to write a play about death and bereavement.

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