LOCo Productions in association with the Salamanca Theatre Company
Wednesday, August 3-Sunday August 7
By Stephenie Cahalan
In The Breath of Life by David Hare, two women meet to reconcile their feelings over the man they have both loved.
On a set cluttered with books we find professional, willful, aging Madeleine who has retired to the Isle of Wight to make her diminishing years pass more slowly. Frances visits ostensibly to write a memoir about the two women, but this thinly veils her true motivation for seeking out her former husband’s mistress; to learn more about the man she loved and find closure for her own failed relationship. The women circle each other as they settle into reveries around their relationships with the same man, the losses, the regret and bitterness they both harbour.
David Hare’s script is demanding, with long monologues that often render one actor stranded and uncomfortable — no doubt how I would feel if I were stuck in a room with my ex-partner’s ex-partner. However, I found the script unnecessarily wordy so the play may have benefited from trimming the excess dialogue that added little to the story, yet drained the dynamic of the actors. The repetitious banter between the two defensive women (oh really?, you tell me, I understand) left too much important information to supposition. I was frequently left guessing at events that had wrought a profound effect on the women. As one woman would declare ‘Yes, I understand’ I felt like calling out ‘I don’t! Why did you leave if you loved him so much, why did you love him when he sounds like an insensitive, selfish prig? Where is this going?’
Jane Longhurst’s fine portrayal of Frances, with her innocent pain and dignified bewilderment, was the backbone of the production. Madeleine, played by Helen Noonan, was less well-defined and it was not until the second act that Noonan really found her character’s voice and personality, helped by some of the sharper lines of the whole production. Clearer direction and more time in rehearsal may have helped resolve this. The intense discomfort of the two characters was keenly conveyed; by their rigid stance, well-held distance and inability to sit and communicate. I saw the play on opening night, so this would have improved with each performance. The lighting enhanced the middle-of-the-night mood, yet at times was a bit to dim to invite the audience in.
However, the script failed to really convey why these two intelligent, successful women ever fell for the absent character of Martin, who comes across as a spoilt man who has moved directly from adolescence to mid-life crisis, skipping the maturing process altogether. Somewhere the script has missed something vital in the explanation of the spell-binding man, which in turn robs the characters of Madeleine and Frances of their third dimension.
I love seeing productions at the Backspace Theatre, with its stiff chairs and the occasional intrusion of a noisy car rattling by outside. I love seeing strong two-handers, especially with actors of Longurst’s calibre and ability. The Breath of Life is a good opportunity to enjoy the athleticism of a dialogue-driven performance such as this.
However, I felt cheated as these two robust, intelligent female characters sparred over an undeserving bounder and could not help but conclude that, like Madeleine and Frances, actors deserve better from a writer.