Whenever playwright Christopher Hampton is on board, you can guarantee the writing will be deftly articulate. Explaining past activities is, however, rather a long way from presenting properly dramatic action. And while Samuel Beckett’s existential classic “Waiting for Godot” — once waggishly described as a play in which “nothing happens, twice” — is proof that drama needn’t depend upon hyperactive plotting, “Embers” makes “Godot” look like “Gone With the Wind.”
Like the latter, “Embers” began life as a novel. Published in 1942, it was forgotten until 1999, when it was rediscovered and republished to worldwide critical acclaim.
Although structurally dissimilar, both page and stage versions share what passes for a plot. The opening line, “So he’s back,” serves not just as exposition but as a welcome to Jeremy Irons, returning to the London stage after an 18-year absence to play Henrik. On an increasingly dark and stormy night, the long-retired Austro-Hungarian general is giving a beady-eyed welcome to his oldest friend, Konrad (Patrick Malahide), after a gap of 41 years and 43 days.
This, it seems, is going to be a showdown. At least, that’s what is suggested by Michael Blakemore’s dutiful production, which features the odd sound effect of a storm brewing, a power cut and darting shadows of a fire on the walls of Peter J. Davison’s castle interior, not to mention Irons stealthily removing a revolver from a secret drawer in a bureau and pointing it out the window at his approaching erstwhile rival.
Konrad takes his place in a comfortable wing-backed chair and submits not to a conversation, but to a rambling interrogation. What actually happened all those years ago? Why did Konrad leave? Did he have an affair with Henrik’s beautiful young wife?
The basics of their (hi)story are revealed fairly swiftly — “Facts are only part of the truth,” observes Henrik, portentously — but the affair wrecked all three lives. The demise of the men’s friendship, Hampton wants us to believe, has eaten them alive.
“The kind of secret we have between us has enormous power,” confides Henrik, and the evening rests on the thriller-like device of withheld secrets. That works on the page where event, description and other narrative devices divert the reader from being given the murderer’s identity. On the stage it’s much harder to pull off, especially when Konrad’s response to questioning is almost total silence — which feels increasingly and exasperatingly artificial. Worse, as becomes clear, Henrik not only senses but actually knows most of the answers.
Konrad’s implacable behavior makes this the most thankless role in London theater. Great acting is based on listening, but there are few opportunities for Malahide to lift that listening into anything remotely active. He occasionally disagrees or sheds silent tears, but otherwise remains inert.
In the absence of drama, your mind wanders to more prosaic production points, such as: Why does Irons roam about all the time when any sane person would sit down? Answer: Because were he to sit down, there’s so little change in dramatic tension that he’d have no reason to stand up again. This is an evening that redefines the word “static.”
Throughout the interrogation, Hampton’s script announces its intention to delve into undeniably intriguing ideas of male friendship. Is fidelity central to it? Is there a degree of unacknowledged eroticism in heterosexual male bonds? Unlike Hampton’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s “Art” — a play wholly to do with the same topic — instead of dramatizing such ideas, it merely states them.
Matters aren’t helped by the casting. Irons’ actorly attempts to indicate his character’s age — somewhere in his 70s — are only intermittent. His gruff, pompous tone is, however, unvarying. The idea is to show Henrik as a man hollowed out by self-inflicted pain, but in this near-monologue, Irons lacks the necessary range to lift the surprisingly undernourished script. By the end, it’s not so much Henrik that is revealed to be desiccated, it’s the drama.