The Forest by Florian Zeller. Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage, London NW1 to 12 March 2022. 3***. William Russell.

Florian Zeller’s latest play translated by Christopher Hampton is getting its world premiere at Hampstead and a mystifying and disturbing experience it turns out to be. It is about a man who lies, and then finds himself lost in a world of lies which he cannot control. Directed by Jonathan Kent in a cleverly designed set which allows us to see the home of Pierre (Toby Stephens), a successful surgeon, the room in which he meets his mistress, and a series of offices where, trapped in the aftermath of breaking off the relationship, he meets other people. As always with Zeller things get scrambled, events are replayed and we have two versions of Pierre, the real one, perhaps, played by Stephens, the other one by Paul McGann. Pierre’s daughter has broken off her relationship with her husband because of an affair, he tries to help and yet we know that all is not well. There is something wrong. Then we meet Man 2 (McGann) breaking it off with his mistress (Angela Coulby) in heartless, self centred fashion. She refuses to go quietly, deluges his home with phone calls and deliveries of flowers. H hint of Fatal Attraction there. In due course we realise Pierre, listed as Man 1, and Man 2 are one and the same. The elements of a thriller, of murder perhaps, of a suicide intended to destroy Pierre perhaps are all there in Kent’s moody production. It certainly leaves one wanting to dissect just what it was all about – whether it really works is one of those matters of individual decision. The playing is good, Toby Stephens makes Pierre a smugly contented deceiver at first who crumbles under the strain as his lies are exposed, while McGann’s Pierre remains totally in control of his world of lies. Gina McKee is really wasted as Pierre’s wife although at the end when everything seems to fall to pieces she has a final moment that is a glacial comment on all that has gone before. For some it will be dismissed as a bad play, for some as a failure to maintain Zeller’s so far unblemished record with plays like The Father. But it is still a short 80 minute journey into one man’s hell worth taking which will keep you discussing its content long after the 80 minutes are over.

The Daughter: Millie Brady.
Male Friend: Silas Carson.
The Girlfriend: Angel Coulby.
Man in Black: Finbar Lynch.
Man 2: Paul McGann.
The Wife: Gina McKee.
Female Friend: Sakuntala Ramanee.
Man 1: Toby Stephens.
Young Man: Eddie Toll.

Director: Jonathan Kent.
Designer: Anna Fleischli.
Lighting Designer: Hugh Vanstone.
Sound Designer: Isobel Waller-Bridge.
Production Photographs:The Other Richard.

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