FringeReview UK 2016
Simon Godwin directs a cast led by Ben Miles in Alexei Kaye Campbell’s Sunset at the Villa Thalia which premieres at the National Theatre’s Dorfman. The set’s designed in hallucinatory high verismo by Hildegard Bechtler.
Alexei Kaye Campbell’s Sunset at the Villa Thalia premieres at the National Theatre’s Dorfman. Simon Godwin directs a cast led by Ben Miles with an unfolding pace never hurrying yet as taut as ancient tragedy that here doesn’t quite arrive. A stark white peasant house edged against a varying blue sky sets off a granitic, flat foreground. The set’s designed in hallucinatory high verismo by Hildegard Bechtler.
It’s April 1967, which anyone in Greece would know is the date of the Colonels’ reactionary coup lasting seven years. Naturally no-one guesses this, or seems to. Young dramatist Theo, played winningly by Sam Crane and his wife Charlotte, the politically-attuned Pippa Nixon are entertaining an American couple who want to colonise them. Elizabeth McGovern’s June is partly blotto and throughout the first act has the difficult challenge of appearing vacuous. Her husband Harvey, magnificently sustained by Ben Miles, wields a very different, darker proposition. Charlotte swiftly interrogates him and whilst appearing nonchalant concludes he’s CIA: he knows something will happen.
Something indeed happens before then too. Harvey, who’s attracted to the knowing Charlotte and thinks he detects an answering flame, almost bullies the young couple into purchasing the ‘villa’ from its needy owners, Maria (Glykeria Dimou), who has English, translating for father Stamatis (Christos Callow) who hasn’t. Maria also once swore to her grandmother she later tells Charlotte, that she’ll live in this house forever. Theirs are telling cameos and not for the last time we hear Greek and realize Campbell, half-Greek himself, has a stake in this world.
So when father and daughter lose theirs with huge blue-sky assurances of their life in Australia by Harvey, you begin to fear for them. He’s already christened the villa Thalia (muse of comedy) and suggests the young couple triple any named price if they feel guilty. They opt for paying for the furniture.
As a ramp-up of wide-eyed American appropriation this mildly coercive vision hardly has to touch the sides of parody it’s so relentlessly positive. The real climaxes of the play come between Harvey and Charlotte. As others rush to hear the coup on radio, they confront each other. Harvey declares ‘democracy is a work in progress’ deploying his chameleon-like capacity to present the side of himself – here, the suffering but steely defender. Of screams ‘I have heard them… so that you will never have to.’ It’s flattering and patronising, confiding whilst admitting nothing.
Nine years on, Theo’s successful; with two children the English couple try to hide initially from the visiting Americans that they’re selling up. Despite tripping over children, it’s a more sexually charged half and it’s McGovern who now confides in the reluctant Charlotte: ‘he hasn’t fucked me in six months’. The Americans have lived in Chile; a gifted young pianist next door to them, no communist, disappeared. Harvey’s disturbed, guilty, this brooding gradually explodes as goaded, Harvey reveals a devastating piece of information leading to the denouement. Again the stand-off’s between Charlotte and Harvey.
Pippa Nixon’s mostly convincing as the once-patronised but intellectually savvy ex-model, poise stiffening to indignation. Nevertheless all arguments one might muster against Harvey’s character are channelled through her at times almost straining Charlotte’s role to a cipher. She’s occasionally just a liberal foil redeemed by a wiry sensibility, wary desires – and an imperious temper. Sam Crane perfectly judges the haplessly seducible but consciously charmed writer whose antennae’s for domestic relations, not those bringing the world in with them. McGovern’s superb at going to pieces visibly, and Miles’ depiction suggests a darker end perhaps than we’re left with.
Miles’ is the stand-out performance, carefully terraced, both manipulative, rhetorically psychopathic in execution yet haunted and at times honest with himself and, perhaps, Charlotte. It’s as if Campbell refuses to pursue tragedies to melodrama, despite the loose matter of bringing a gun to the house or a mind now utterly haunted by Chile, just as Charlotte and Theo, Harvey feels, must carry their guilt – he’s manifestly unfair, in fact.
There’s a coda, however, and the damning line Theo earlier quotes of his comedy (one egged on by Harvey) ‘the play came into its own at the curtain call’ might have been written for it: it ushers Eva Polycarpu as a shrouded figure ushering on others. It lifts the slight failure of the second act to live up to the tensions created by the end of the first.
It’s a play making noise quietly, whose significance is easy to miss and perhaps at the highest level Campbell missed something in it too. There’s a barbaric yowl waiting to release itself, with someone waiting to do it. As a tacit commentary on what the west do to Greece, however, its metaphor’s perfectly formed.