Polly Stenham doesn’t shy away from tackling Big Themes in her newest play, her first for the National Theatre. There are several layers at work in Hotel: gender politics and power balance, colonialism and its enshrinement in government policy, and the issue of privacy in the digital age. None of them simple or easy – whole plays can, and have, been devoted to any one of those elements – and she attempts to deal with them through an account of a family on a luxury holiday.
What emerges is a furiously breakneck whistle stop tour of the consequences of owning up, and the question of what people will try to get away with when they think no one is watching, whether in the microcosm of an island or the macrosociety of the internet.
What initially appears to be very West End in tone and content – the story of a supremely dissatisfied middle class couple on holiday; she waspish, he feckless – quickly gives way to something more nuanced, nudging at but never becoming intriguing. Vivienne (Hermione Gulliford) has been forced to step down from her position in government after the discovery of compromising pictures of her husband’s (an alternately hapless and trenchant Tom Beard) online affair, and altogether more disturbing family revelations await them in the form of their children’s responses to an unusually focussed kidnapping attempt.
Prodding at the re-colonising qualities of the whole remote island getaway business, founded as it is on the invasion of the rich and famous seeking the now mythologised restorative isolation of such spots, we are invited – not least by Stephanie Merritt’s contextualisation in the NT programme to think of the island as an additional character – one whose qualities tug all involved towards their baser natural instincts, for better or for worse.
Susan Wokoma is captivating as Nala – her character sliding from reticent maid to would-be murderer with a fantastic physicality under Maria Aberg’s direction, making the most of the NT’s small temporary space. The cause she champions feels, however, too much distilled into a lecture format and comes as rather a jolt in what is largely a deftly paced piece. It is a pity, as this rather undermines several very salient points about the economic strings attached to the granting of Western aid but it is, all told, simply too much to swallow in such a concentrated dose, particularly following the lightly acerbic family banter of earlier scenes.
It may well be the intent that privileged issues – such as those of the privacy of the famous and those in government – must be shown to give way to the deeper and more raw concerns of life and death in the third world, but these patterns leave Hotel somewhat at war with itself; one thread is picked up only to be discarded and superseded by another and we do not quite see enough of anyone to understand their larger motives. The most interesting through line is that of the power of women – here isolated from the larger strictures of society, the women are unquestionably in charge; from Vivienne’s cold fury to her daughter Frankie’s wry domination of her older brother and Nala’s detached dominance.
Dramatic gear changes aside, Hotel is pretty slick, with Kate Waters’ movement direction in the violent scenes at times capable of making the audience tremble and Aberg’s pacey and visceral direction bringing forth the thrust of Stenham’s piece; that we are all only ever a step away from the worst of ourselves, but who sets the scale on which we are allowed to make and conceal those mistakes?