—The Breath of Life. Photo: Douglas Williams
THE BREATH OF LIFE
David Hare wrote this two-hander for Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, who played it in the West End. It’s far from his strongest work, an extended conversation about a love triangle, or really a rectangle with two of the sides missing from the stage. Adam Henderson’s United Players production features UP’s artistic director Andrée Karas and publicist Joan Bryans, who both do good work. But ultimately, the situation and issues Hare explores are too conventional to carry much dramatic weight.
The setting is the home of Madeleine Palmer (Karas) on the Isle of Wight, a quiet, isolated place where the major activities, according to the retired Madeline, are “gardening and dying.” She receives a visit from novelist Frances Beale (Bryans), who has come to talk about her former husband, Martin, who ran off to America with a younger woman. Turns out that, throughout the marriage, while Frances was at home raising their children, Martin had been cheating on her—with Madeline, who is unapologetic. Frances is neither angry nor confrontational. In fact Madeline is critical of Frances—for always wanting to write about things rather than live them. Madeline had met Martin during the 1960s in the American South during the civil rights movement, and she claims for herself and her relationship with Martin a vitality that Frances has never had: “I wanted him to live. I took him to orgies.”
Yeah, well, okay, but I can’t say I felt much sympathy for either woman. Madeline is slightly obnoxious in her self-righteousness and Frances is far too long-suffering. And all this over a man we never see and so never care anything about, a man who doesn’t seem to have been worth either woman’s trouble. Maybe that’s the ironic point.