Never has a play’s title so perfectly encapsulated its contents than in Passion Play, Peter Nichols’ black comedy that – as its religious connotations suggest – depicts the pain, suffering and destruction of the individual at its centre.
Played by Zoë Wanamaker, this individual, music teacher and amateur chorister Eleanor, exudes confidence and resilience from the outset as the wife of painting restorer James (Owen Teale). Surely nothing could break apart the 25 year marriage that has built the genuine bond that exists between them? But along comes Kate (Annabel Scholey), a young seductive widow obsessed with older men and silk underwear whose home-wrecking abilities outrival even the biggest, most destructive bad wolf.
While the domineering and manipulative presence of Scholey’s self-confident Kate is intense enough on its own, James and Eleanor each have an alter ego, a cunning device introduced by Nichols in order to convey his characters’ hidden thoughts and emotions.
Hollering commands and bellowing the truth (and lies) at his counterpart, Olivier Cotton’s Jim combines the inward panic of a man desperate not to be discovered with the unrelenting guilt of a husband who loves his wife. Samantha Bond’s Nell – an uncanny match in both manner and appearance to Wanamaker’s character – acts to externalise Eleanor’s anxieties and ever-increasing misery.
While Bond does well to conjure both comedy and heartbreak from Eleanor’s situation throughout the duration of David Leveaux’s beautifully executed production, it is Wanamaker’s raw performance as the play’s victim that garners the most recognition. As Scholey’s seductive temptress continues to strike and Teale’s James offers little self-restraint, Wanamaker’s previously resolute and confident Eleanor is gradually torn apart by her husband’s infidelity until her existence becomes little more than a heap of desperate despair.
Everything about the Olivier Award-winning actress – the way she holds herself, her facial expressions, the look in her eyes – conveys that of a destroyed woman, plagued by doubt and no longer able to trust her once loving husband. It is a performance that provides a startling contrast to some of the characters the My Family star is well known for conveying on screen.
Played out on Hildegard Bechtler’s subtle but elegant set with emotive outbursts of sacred music between scenes, Passion Play is as relevant today as it was several decades ago, perfectly portraying the effects that an affair can have on both the betrayer and the betrayed.