I may have said many things, Oliver, but unfortunately I probably didn’t mean them.” The overwhelming irony of this remark is that it’s a lie. The issue of men’s honesty, or rather their lack of it, lies at the very considerable heart of “The Pride,” Alexi Kaye Campbell’s arresting double portrait of the costs of self-deception. In the work of any playwright, such engrossing handling of emotional inarticulacy would be impressive. In a debut, it’s truly remarkable.
Campbell’s mature ability to grip audiences with subtly truthful disclosure is matched by his skill at construction. “The Pride” interleaves two triangular relationships, one in the 1950s, one in the present, each with the same characters played by the same actors. Although very different in tone and intent, the effect is not unlike Todd Haynes’ period revamp “Far From Heaven,” but with considerably more restraint and power.
Well-heeled, confident ’50s Philip (J.J. Feild) is married to Sylvia (Lyndsey Marshal), who is illustrating a children’s book by Oliver (Bertie Carvel). In Jamie Lloyd’s meticulously directed opening scene — all brittle chat in cut-glass accents — the witty banter of their initial meeting is gradually undercut by unspoken tension that isn’t exactly dissipated by Philip saying, “As long as I don’t discover you’ve been having a torrid affair behind my back, we should get on just fine.”
In fact, as becomes clear in the electrifying gaze between the two men, the unspoken tension in the room isn’t heterosexual.
The action then jump-cuts to the present, where Philip and Oliver — still in their mid-30s — now live together. Their relationship, however, is seriously jeopardized by Oliver’s addiction to casual sex, a conundrum more worrying to their friend Sylvia than Oliver himself.
Although, at first, the play’s principal relationships appear to be between the men, Campbell is cunningly misleading the audience. Sylvia grows in awareness and power. She is the most generous, least self-deceiving character, and in both eras, she drives the men toward truth.
The two eras — simply and evocatively conjured by designer Soutra Gilmour with the minimum of telling props against a giant, tarnished mirror — cast light upon each other. The societal repression of the ’50s is neatly paralleled with the self-repression of gay men in the 2000s.
The danger in this kind of double structure is that once audiences are clued into it, tension evaporates because the paralleling tends to become a foregone conclusion. Campbell’s masterstroke is to maintain suspense by sustaining the ideas but switching the power dynamics. Thus characters repeat in the two periods but move in different and unexpected directions.
Instead of balancing each other out, the eras rub against each other to create real dramatic friction. A haunting scene with Philip and an aversion therapist in the ’50s is contrasted in 2008 by one with Oliver meeting a hilariously know-it-all, straight magazine editor intent on commissioning a piece on “the whole gay thing.”
Campbell’s background as an actor serves him extremely well in his adroit handling of subtext, which the immaculate cast feasts upon. But it’s the rigorous unsentimentality of Lloyd’s direction that’s most impressive. His actors are never allowed to indulge themselves through overt displays of the underlying pain and longing that courses through the play, instead leaving audiences to discover for themselves what lies beneath the surface.
Nowhere is this more heartbreaking than in the climactic scene in which ’50s Sylvia confronts Oliver with his betrayal. In one of the year’s finest performances, Marshal reins in her anger and instead shows compassion. The ambition of that scene alone marks the arrival of a serious new voice in theater and the debut of the year.