Sunset At Villa Thalia is the kind of impeccably acted, beautifully designed, and thoroughly engaging play that used to captivate in the Cottesloe Theatre but which has been scarcer than hen’s teeth in the revamped Dorfman Theatre. Neither comedy nor tragedy, it puts issues about modern life in a light as clear as any Greek summer noon.
It’s a small, tall beachside building, of the kind you might expect to see on any Grecian shoreline. Once it was pristine white, but time, the elements and the love and clutter of family life has tarnished it somewhat. It still seems oddly majestic, with the sound of the swelling sea embracing it, humbling it.
It’s rented to a young English couple; a writer and his actor partner. He is trying to write better work in the natural glory of their temporary home. An American couple they met the previous day at the Port is over for a drink, an impetuous invitation with darker motivations, both for the offerors and the acceptors.
The Greek father and his daughter, the owners of the property, come to collect some furniture. They are migrating to Australia, away from penury, towards hope. They need every cent they can gather.
The American suggests the couple take advantage of the family’s plight – buy the house. The Greek father jumps at the chance, offering a price so small as to be risible – except to him it’s a fortune, a promise of a real fresh start. Will the couple take the American’s advice – and, if so, at what cost: real, spoken and unspoken?
Just when one could be forgiven for thinking that the days of the engrossing political play were over, Alexi Kaye Campbell pens Sunset At The Villa Thalia, and Rufus Norris programmes it to make its debut in the Dorfman Theatre. In a production of clarity and care, Simon Godwin, easily one of the five best directors working in London now, makes Campbell’s small domestic drama vibrate with rhythms, tensions and insights which resonate, strongly, universally, and will echo in thoughts long after one has left the auditorium.
Campbell wraps the play up in ribbons which suggest a polemic about the political and financial upheavals in Chile and in Greece. But Sunset At The Villa Thalia seems actually about different issues.
It’s a riveting critique of neoliberalism and all of the garbage left in its wake; savagely assesses the spider web that is American cultural and financial imperialism; coldly examines marriages, both of the British middle class kind and the desolate trophy bride kind; and, most affectingly, reminds that some progress comes at the cost of heritage and personal dreams.
Yes, there are some references to Pinochet in Chile and the Regime of the Colonels in Greece, and, yes, the overarching, and very affecting story, concerns the unconscionable plunder of the Greek way of life. But the true skill here is threading these big, stodgy and unpalatable subjects into an almost mundane tale.
But that’s the point Campbell makes. The failure of neoliberalism everywhere affects everyone – the entitled, the aspirational and the poor, whether they dream or not. It’s true that some of the arguments have been dramatised before, but not in such an accessible and beguiling way.
While the setting is an idyllic Greek island, Skiathos, it could be many places: this is not an inherently Greek story. It could take place in St Ives or Brighton or any other beautiful place anywhere where the economy is not what it was and opportunists visit, swoop and invest.
That is not to say that the Greek setting is irrelevant: it’s not. It provides a safe, warm background for the events that play out, making the audience feel at once sentimental (especially if they have been watching The Durrells) and falsely superior: after all, Britain is threatening to leave the EU, Greece is fighting to stay. All of this makes what unfolds, some of which is comedic, some of which is horrifying, just that much more intensely unsettling.
Godwin understands the nuances and complexities, and masterfully unpeels the onion before our eyes. In the final tableau, when the ghost of the Greek matriarch and her granddaughter shell peas and chatter in Greek about the future, about their dreams for the house by the sea, there is nothing to do but cry.
He also understands that Campbell is fiercely feminist in this piece. All of the mistakes, errors and deceptions are made or carried out by the men, Greek, American or British. The women suffer the consequences, emotionally, financially, physically. Pippa Nixon’s articulate and conscientious Charlotte, for instance, is forced to be Shrew-like in order to get obedience from her male child. The play is as much a plea for the death of assumed patriarchal entitlement as it is about anything else.
Hildegard Bechtler’s set design evokes island life impressively. As you look at the two storey classic white stone dwelling, you can just about feel the heat on the back of your neck, the sand between your toes and the scent of the ocean in your breath. There are clever changes to the set between Acts, so that the removal of the Greek heritage and the imposition of British clutter and detritus is gently emphasised.
As ever, Michael Bruce provides a soundscape that is appropriate and moving, and Tom Gibbons’ sound design is unobtrusive and precise. Balance is achieved brilliantly; when you need to hear the sea or feel the breeze passing – you do.
Quite superb lighting from Natasha Chivers completes the effect; the subtle but sure darkening as night throws over its blanket feels natural but aids the developing tension incisively.
The cast gives Sunset At The Villa Thalia a lustrous, engrossing vigour. Everyone is outstanding. Like all tremendous actors, they make what they do seem trivial and everyday, but the unspoken is as potent as the spoken with this troop.
Glykeria Dimou is astonishingly good as Maria, the young woman who adores the house, the forest and the sea she was promised by her devoted Yia-yia (an absolutely beautiful and tremendously touching performance, full of wisdom and hope, from Eve Polycarpou). Her father’s decision to sell up and emigrate to Australia shatters her soul, and Dimou conveys that with rapier precision. There is no wailing or wringing of hands – her eyes flush with panic, shame and pain as her inheritance, her very life substance, is bargained away before her. Her powerlessness and humiliation is marvellously conveyed.
It would be easy to dismiss Sam Crane as being wasted in a pointless role as the writer, Theo, but if you did that you would be quite wrong. Theo is a complex creation – selfish (he takes Charlotte to a secluded island where he can write but she has no opportunity to pursue her acting career), imperious (he regards finalising the details of the purchase of Maria’s inheritance as man’s business), spineless (he defers to everything the Alpha Male Harvey – we will come to him – propounds) and deceptive (he may well be gay, he certainly does not shrink from Harvey kissing him full on the lips and he is not perturbed by Harvey’s odd declarations of love).
Yet, he is also sweet and likeable. Crane walks the line carefully, occasionally perilously veering from the supposed confines of his ‘good old chap’ creation. The sequence where he exercises, shirtless, in front of his wife and guest June – we will come to her too – is skin crawling as is his total abrogation of parenting responsibilities for his two children to Charlotte. He might suggest to Charlotte that they could pay over the asking price for the house in order to not take unfair advantage of Maria and her father, Stamatis (a slightly overcooked Christos Callow, but acutely desperate in the most telling moment) but he doesn’t follow through. He exploits as Harvey advises.
No, Theo is a revolting opportunistic parasite, the natural progeny of Thatcher’s vision for Britain. Shifty, calculating and aspirational, he seizes chances that suit him, pretending everyone he cares for benefits. Few actors could hide all that under a veneer of affable charm, but Crane manages immaculately.
Pippa Nixon has almost the reverse problem. Campbell writes her to be the suffering heroine, the one voice in the wilderness asking for the light, for reason. Yet that too is surface. Charlotte agrees to abandon her career to support Theo and raises her children with care and in paradise. She talks as though she actually cares about the heritage crushing she and Theo engage in, but she goes along with it and never gives a thought for Maria or Stamatis after that.
She has a quick temper and a shrill disposition when crossed. Theo seems an ideal match for her, because they are both attracted to Harvey; the difference is that Charlotte admits it and does not act on it (except that she follows his guidance about life matters) whereas Theo permits a passionate kiss. Together, Theo and Charlotte represent the unthinking British position that America knows best.
Nixon is quite terrific, engaging constantly, pleasant and pretty. And she finds a way to make Charlotte’s shrillness seem both natural and organic. Her final cold scene with Harvey is brutally honest and she and Crane have good chemistry, the kind that suggests love but never insists upon it.
As the repellent, obnoxious and slithering conniver that is the “diplomat” Harvey, Ben Miles, who really can do no wrong on stage, is frighteningly good. Like some mash-up of Clinton, Reagan and Trump, he oils his way around the floor, spewing forth neoliberal cant and extolling the virtues of his Government’s assumptions about the right way to do things. Like Tony Blair, he has the virtue of being able to appear graceful while being vile. He is fascinating to watch and manipulative and ingratiating in ways that bear no resemblance to his Wolf Hall Cromwell.
Miles’ Harvey treats his trophy bride, June, with casual contempt and an occasional moment of affection. As the play progresses though, he almost ages before our eyes, the weight of the many atrocious things he has played a part in doing, crushing what’s left of his conscience. A mystery about a missing, beautiful young male pianist in Chile seems to have broken him – it seems clear that Harvey was somehow involved in the disappearance/murder of the budding virtuoso, but whether that was because of romantic entanglement or accident is never clarified – and doesn’t matter. Harvey blames himself and the toll is great.
Miles is wonderful at capturing all of the nooks and crannies of this sphinx-like creature of capitalism gone feral. Equally, though, this is no cardboard villain, but a tainted, tragic figure, awash with fashionable policy positions and a grim determination to power through life regardless of the flowers squashed on the way. The scene where Miles tries to teach the children his version of a traditional Greek dance is truly skin-crawling: a reminder of the traditional cultures neoliberalism has sought to dispatch or obliterate with carefree abandon.
The awkward sexual tension between Harvey and both Theo and Charlotte is assiduously developed by Miles and all of those scenes are difficult to watch, so close to the bone and honestly are the underlying emotions conveyed.
His relationship with June is perfect, exactly the sort that can be seen in action on any day in the streets of New York, Washington or Chicago (amongst many other USA cities). And his complete disregard for the Greek people he meets, except when their fate can be used as a weapon against Theo and Charlotte, is fascinating; equally, one wonders whether the fate of the Chilean pianist has led to some Saul-like late life conversion, albeit temporarily, for this soldier of capitalist imperialism.
Like a diamond, Miles’ performance is many faceted; it sparkles and slowly reveals hidden depths. It is also priceless.
However, the performance of the evening comes from Elizabeth McGovern as the wafer-thin hard-white-liquor-drenched June, wife to globe-trotting Harvey. McGovern is brutally honest in her depiction of self-deluded pretension cemented with endemic alcoholic self-destruction. There is no trace of the Countess of Grantham from Downton Abbey about her (mercifully, because she was the worst thing in that series); here McGovern creates a wholly believable, quite heart-breaking character: the woman every capitalist imperialist must have and always abuses.
There is a marvellous bird-like quality to McGovern’s every movement. She conveys a sense of style inseparable from trepidation – she knows she must look perfect constantly but she is afraid always of what Harvey will think and do. McGovern makes the most of every laugh line Campbell tosses her way, and creates a deal of laughter through purely physical responses to the character. But it is all seamlessly done, totally, mesmerisingly convincing.
McGovern is most adept in communicating the interior pain of this ever smiling, ever friendly June. Even when she is being overly jocular or self-deprecating, your can almost see her inner soul screaming in coruscating pain.
In the second Act, McGovern masterfully handles the long speech where June tells Charlotte about the beautiful pianist and his disappearance, as well as the fact that she and Harvey can’t have children and that Harvey “hasn’t fucked (her) in six months and before that it was like…well, it wasn’t fun, not like he wanted to is what I mean.” It would be so easy for this scene to be melodramatic and irksome, but McGovern has properly laid the foundations, so when the dam bursts it is real and powerful.
Desperation is like a scent McGovern’s June wears constantly, and in the ten years between the first and second Acts, the ravages of life on the move and in the spotlight with Harvey have clearly taken their toll, increased the desperation factor exponentially, a fact McGovern blithely and all-encompassingly conveys. There is some business with her shoes which demonstrates the detail and commitment McGovern has brought to every aspect of her characterisation.
So many of McGovern’s touches are breathlessly good. She never tries to flirt with Theo because she knows Harvey’s interest. She tries to bond with Charlotte even though she knows Harvey’s interest. She tries to be the best, most enthusiastic “Aunt” to the children Adrian and Rosalind (Ethan Rouse and Dixie Egerick in fine fettle) that she can be, knowing that what they really want is Harvey’s approval. Only alcohol does not resist her.
Having seen McGovern’s June it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. She is indefatigable, blazingly good. Polish awards for her now.
This is an outstanding production of a thoughtful penetrating play. Godwin has achieved something like Mediterranean sunshine – it feels good and relaxed while you are experiencing it, but afterwards the effect can be scorching as the reality of what has happened breaks out in blisters.
As I left the Dorfman Theatre, a gentleman impeccably dressed in a three piece suit with a Burberry jacket over his arm, his Rolex just on show, turned to his bejeweled and wrapped-in-fur female companion and snarled “Who was that for?”. She sighed. “Us, I think”.