The penchant for putting scripts through the temporal blender continues apace at the Royal Court, whose latest mainstage entry, “The Woman Before,” marries “Fatal Attraction,” of all things, with Greek myth by way of the splintered theatrics of, say, Martin Crimp. The same doom-laden narrative might have been more effective told straightforwardly. Still, however irksome German writer Roland Schimmelpfennig’s would-be pyrotechnics, Richard Wilson’s production is almost always a pleasure, even if the play leaves you disinclined to ever again answer an unexpected knock at the door.
That knocking belongs to Romy Vogtlander (Helen Baxendale), a seemingly sweet-faced, self-possessed woman who has come to call at the home of Frank (Nigel Lindsay) and wife Claudia (Saskia Reeves), who are packing up their apartment in preparation for a move. It seems that 24 years ago, Frank swore undying love to Romy, who has returned to make good on the promise of a man no longer in the first flush of lovesick youth.
And what if Frank has moved on to a marriage lasting 19 years? Tough luck: Romy wants her amorous pound of flesh and is prepared to go to some fairly extreme ends to get it.
“All I did was open the door,” sighs Frank, and you can’t blame him for lamenting what turns out to be a huge misstep. Before you can say bunny boiler, Romy has shifted her interest to Frank and Claudia’s seriously horny son, Andi (Tom Riley). This in turn affects Andi’s relationship with g.f. Tina (Georgia Taylor), whom Andi, too, has unwisely told he will love forever. Uh oh.
Love, or at least lust, is decidedly elastic in a scenario that is nothing if not pulpy, however many chronological tricks and apparent profundities Schimmelpfennig imposes upon it. (The crisp translation is by David Tushingham.) While Andi speaks improbably of “a darkness you’ll never be able to live inside,” the 20 scenes whiz back and forth in time. “Approximately 10 hours later,” we’re told, or “Two days earlier” or “Meanwhile.” The fractures aren’t quite as extreme as in concurrent Court entry “Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness,” with its 39 scenes, but they are scarcely less wearing.
Anyone expecting the pleasures of sequential rearrangement that are part of “Betrayal,” among many other plays, think again: For all the wit of director Richard Wilson’s staging, “Woman Before” never dispels the sense that an elemental story has been tampered with to the point of absurdity, perhaps in an effort to make the time-honored figure of the spurned and vengeful lover seem minted anew.
The author is fortunate to have on hand not just Wilson (soon to be repped on Broadway with Antony Sher’s “Primo”) but a top-rank designer in Mark Thompson, whose high-walled set effortlessly achieves the Continental chic toward which the writing aspires.
The always natural Lindsay (“Dealer’s Choice”) puts a likably human face on some pretty heavy-duty bewilderment, and Riley’s Andi, in an appealing professional debut, isn’t far behind in his late-adolescent awareness that promises of devotion are made to be broken. Popular TV name Baxendale once again displays ace theatrical chops, playing the sort of harpy who might give even Medea pause. As she launches into one of several plaintive renditions of the Lennon-McCartney song “I Will,” the actress leaves you ready to agree to anything — however considerable the cost.