I always think of David Hare as being a pretty bloody magnificent playwright. But then I also think of him as being a writer from the 70s and 80s when I was really “into” studying drama. Slag, Knuckle, Fanshen, Licking Hitler, Teeth ‘n’ Smiles, Plenty and A Map of the World. All wonderful, riveting, enlightening, revealing plays.
My Zinc Bed, I understand, was originally written in 2000 and received rather poor reviews. For this production I believe David Hare has done a partial rewrite. All I can say is that the 2000 version must have been desperately dull if this new production is an improvement.
It’s not a bad night out at the theatre by any means. The play is full of clever observations, tackling serious questions, and with interesting characters. It is, though, one of those occasions where the sum of its parts far exceeds the whole. The story is that of Paul, a reforming alcoholic, and his encounter with Victor, a charismatic celebrity businessman and his wife Elsa. Victor challenges Paul on his reliance on Alcoholics Anonymous, which goads Paul into annoyance but allows the chink in his armour which lets in alcohol to reappear. Victor and Elsa down delicious looking Margaritas in front of Paul; and I won’t tell you the rest of the story in case you see it. Paul and Elsa also have a bit of a “thing” – although it’s hardly an affair. Her reason for being attracted to Paul is one of the most interesting revelations of the play. Suffice it to say, it’s not his good looks, job, money or sexual prowess that does it.
My main problem with this play is that it’s really static. I always like to emerge from a work of art of any sort different from how I went into it; and that applies to the characters too. Paul is a reforming alcoholic at the beginning of the play; and at the end he hasn’t changed. Victor’s and Elsa’s marriage changes, but even then you don’t see it happen – it’s something Paul merely mentions in passing to the audience at the end.
I enjoyed very much the moment when Paul confesses what it is about Elsa that arouses him – the sound of her sexy stockings. For me this worked brilliantly, as she had just crossed her legs and I got a bit of a frisson – and that was when Paul spoke about it. A direct hit on my theatre radar!!
Robert Gwilym had all the charisma for the part of Victor but I was quite surprised, I felt he garbled a few of the speeches. He seemed to lose some syllables on some words occasionally and sometimes I didn’t quite catch what he said, even though I was in Row B of the Stalls. Leanne Best had a good mix of sensuous and reserved and tackled the role well; but Jamie Parker playing Paul has the best role and took it by the horns. I was completely won over by his dishevelled discomfort and his living death by alcohol particularly in the second act was moving and convincing. As an aside, I didn’t like the way the positioning of the furniture meant that Leanne Best had to take her curtain call partly obscured. Just looked very wrong to me.
The set is rather mystifying; empty tables to the side of the stage that never come into the action are suddenly laden with bottles and glasses in the second act. It’s an “active background” – which is in good keeping with the rest of the play, but “active background” isn’t very dramatic.
Victor says that you only get to know what life is all about when you’re lying on your zinc bed (or dead). In a sense you only get to understand what this play is all about when one of the characters meets their end (at the end). But the main feeling of the whole experience is that it’s undramatic and not terribly rewarding.