Time Out says
Abi Morgan’s strange, haunting play about a dictator’s wife gets under your skin… eventually.
Because writer Abi Morgan is best known for smart mainstream films like ‘The Iron Lady’ and the forthcoming ‘Suffragette’, it’s easy to forget just how unapologetically avant-garde her stage stuff can be.
Like the dictators it’s tangentially fascinated with, this major revival of Morgan’s ‘Splendour’ starts off as a faintly tedious oddity, and ends commanding your attention utterly.
In an unnamed, war-torn state, four women are gathered in the opulent home of the country’s despot ruler. There’s Micheleine (Sinéad Cusack), his smooth, formidable wife; Genevieve (Michelle Fairley), her fragile best friend; Kathryn (Genevieve O’Reilly), a hardbitten Aussie photojournalist come to snap the absent man of the house; and Gilma (Zawe Ashton), Micheleine’s erratic, kleptomaniac translator.
Despite game comic relief from sitcom star Ashton, for half an hour or so ‘Splendour’ is a chore, as the women swap nervy chit chat that replays in looped scenes with minor variations, each punctured by Gilma dropping an expensive vase that she was trying to nick. There is a sense that there’s something interesting brewing. But it’s sloggy: ‘Splendour’ does little to ease you in or suggest where it’s going, other than back on itself.
But as the night wears on it gets under your skin. Through repetition we get to know the women, and the dark subtext to their bright patter; minor variations provide a drip-drip of revelation; the tension grows; the plot slowly advances. As it becomes apparent that armed men will soon take the palace, the bland chatter seems less banal, more a tremendous act of will.
Though I wonder if a different director to rising star Robert Hastie might have pulled off the early scenes with more panache, his production finds its groove. ’Splendour’ reveals itself as an unsettling and increasingly poignant play about constructed realities. In a truly great performance from Cusack, Micheleine’s unflappable conviviality belies the fact she is clearly terrified, aware her death is near yet refusing to crack. Genevieve’s meekness is also a façade, its secret bound up in the ominous painting that hangs in the room. Kathryn is hardbitten and jaded to the point she’s lost her moral compass. Gilma, it transpires, has totally reinvented herself.
‘Splendour’ is far more challenging than Morgan’s films. But you can see the links between this and ‘The Iron Lady’: not because she portrayed Thatcher as a dictator, but because Morgan admired the ex-PM’s power to reshape a male-run world. In ‘Splendour’ there are allusions to terrible things Micheleine has done, but in the hermetically sealed realm of the play we can’t help but admire her sheer self-possession, and the monolithic dignity with which she faces the end. None of these women are loveable yet the courage with which they face destruction is almost painfully admirable.