The Almeida Theater seems unstoppable at the moment, and London is all the richer for it. While the Ralph Fiennes “Hamlet” finishes its sellout Hackney Empire run March 30 with a free performance for local residents – tickets went within an hour March 20 – the company’s home base in Islington has opened a heart-stopping new play, Sharman Macdonald’s “The Winter Guest,” unforgettably well-served by an unexpected director, Alan Rickman.
The setting is a coastal village in Scotland one bleak, icy day. The “winter guest” of the title: death, whose presence is felt among each of the four pairings who comprise the cast of characters. The play has no plot, just atmosphere, poignance and humor in abundance: Two elderly women scan the papers for funerals they can attend in an effort to perk up lives spent waiting for buses that rarely arrive; a grandmother rows with her prematurely widowed photographer daughter while her shy grandson is pursued by a feisty teenage girl; two 12-year old boys eagerly await puberty while making risky forays out on to the ice.
The evening proceeds with a confident mixture of the hilarious and the elegiac that marks a quantum leap over Macdonald’s previous plays, “Shades” and “When I Was a Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout.” It’s a play in which seemingly nothing happens – and yet everything does, leaving an audience attuned to language and nuance stunned by its quiet force.
Beyond an unusual director in Rickman, the play boasts an unusual co-producer in New York financier (and former deputy mayor) Ken Lipper, who has written and co-produced the forthcoming Al Pacino movie, “City Hall.” Lipper came to the Almeida via board member Ed Victor, the London-based American agent, who sent him “The Winter Guest.” Lipper agreed at once to help finance it, although he adds that his attachment to the play is “not a question of money (but) one of attention and love.” He hopes to transfer it to New York within the year, in a staging as close as possible to the London version: “The more we can export it intact, the better it will be.”