‘Force Majeure’ was one of the handful of high-profile December theatre openings delayed by the ravages of the Omicron wave. But I’m very glad it’s soldiered on to a belated January press night because, a) it’s very good, b) January is normally dead as a dodo for new openings and c) live skiing!
Adapted by playwright Tim Price from Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s acclaimed 2014 film, I don’t think there’s any great case to answer as to why rearrange ‘Force Majeure’ for the stage. Östlund’s bitter comedy follows Tomas, a fragile, immature married man who goes on a skiing holiday in the French Alps with his wife and two kids and cravenly abandons them when it briefly looks like they’re going to be hit by an avalanche. It’s a terrific story: cynical, excruciating but also tender and empathetic. It’s also fairly obscure, and Price’s essentially faithful adaptation is a far better English-language stab at the story than ‘Downhill’, the rubbishy 2020 Hollywood remake with Will Ferrell.
Rory Kinnear is terrific as Tomas, a successful businessman struggling to be a decent father and husband, constantly, magnetically drawn back to staring at his phone when he should really be engaging with his kids, who would themselves rather stare at their phones than enjoy quality time. This, I can tell you from experience, is the general status quo of parenthood: the way siblings Vera and Harry (Florence and Henry Hunt on press night, both great) constantly get into sudden, catastrophic fights that can only be soothed by the deployment of screen time is painfully bang on.
A family holiday means jangled nerves at the best of times but everything is brought to the boil by Tomas pegging it from the avalanche. The issue is less that he did it, than that he absolutely refuses to admit he did it. Kinnear looks like a big sullen baby as he hems and haws and tries to change the subject to his exhausted wife Ebba (Lyndsey Marshal), eventually settling on some bollocks about how they clearly perceive the incident differently. You can call it him gaslighting her, but it’s ultimately a man with such a fragile sense of self that he simply cannot admit to anyone that he did something so unheroic. And nobody does understated self-loathing like Kinnear – it is gloriously painful stuff.
Really, though, I supposed it’s less a story about masculinity than family: the roles we force ourselves to take on in a family unit, the compromises we make not to kill each other, the huge gulf between the people we are and the people we have to pretend to be for our children. It’s brilliant stuff, smartly articulated by Price; he’s not tinkered a huge amount with the original, but I’m reasonably sure he’s subtly updated it to increase the role of screens and screen time in the family dynamic.
So, yes: it would be pretty damn good even if it was just a conventionally staged family drama. But Donmar boss Michael Longhurst and team have absolutely decided to go big or go home on the whole skiing thing. A stage version of ‘Force Majeure’ doesn’t need a USP to justify itself. But it has one nonetheless (one so full-on I suspect it might annoy the more dedicated fans of the film). Designer Jon Bausor has turned the Donmar stage into a giant ski slope, covered in some sort of cottony white fabric. While Tomas and family largely just mime skiing, the hefty supporting cast actually do it, gliding gracefully from a little on-ramp at the top right corner of the stage to an exit point at the bottom left. It is a slightly preposterous thing to do in any theatre, let alone a tiny one, and it’s utterly glorious: the fairly naturalistic main story is set against a faintly hysterical backdrop of grinning skiers, flashing ski poles, banging electric euro trance and the odd random dance sequence. In a crack team, movement director Sasha Milavic Davies is the woman of the match, keeping this extremely ambitious production on piste.
Honestly, when I went away for Christmas, I assumed I’d be coming back to either a shuttered London theatre scene or one reduced to a couple of very lucky, possibly socially distanced shows. But without wishing to minimise the horrible challenges of Omicron, it’s a delight to see such a dazzlingly theatrical show as my first new play of 2022. If you’re up for seeing some theatre right now, there’s still plenty of light in the gloom.