The third play in Sheffield Theatres’ David Hare retrospective strikes a different note to the previous two works. Whereas Plenty had an epic sweep, jumping back and forth across three decades, and Racing Demon brilliantly analysed the modern-day role of the Church Of England, The Breath of Life, written in 2002, is an intimate two-header that focuses on two middle-aged, middle-class women, Frances and Madeleine, who are connected by their relationship with a philandering QC.
The entire play is set in one room over the course of one evening as Frances shows up at the door of Madeleine, the woman who’s been having an affair with her husband over a 20 year period. Martin, the QC in question, has since left Frances for a younger woman and moved to Seattle, and through the night they reminisce, gently argue and learn more about each other.
Unlike much of Hare’s work, this play contains no major exploration of the social or the political – this is a very human drama. The dialogue is, however, whip-sharp, with several lines causing ripples of laughter to spread through the audience, but it’s when the script tries to dig a bit deeper that the play comes apart.
The problem is that the two hour conversation had by these characters simply fails to sustain the attention. Strong as the dialogue is, the two characters just aren’t compelling enough and the audience are left wondering why these two intelligent, articulate women would want to waste half their life on Martin, a man made to sound like one hell of a dreary bore.
The two leads are both excellent. Patricia Hodge is particularly good as the acerbic Madeleine (although it’s difficult to shake off the recent memory of her as Miranda’s Hart screen mother, especially when she says “you’re, what they call, a nice person”). She also gets the majority of the funny lines, especially the explanation of why people retire to the Isle Of Wight. Isla Blair is good too in the less showy role of Frances; she nails the character’s exhausted emotional state while never letting that very British sense of reserve drop. When her voice eventually cracks, as she tries to come to terms with the loss of the man she married, it’s impossible not to feel for her.
Alex Eales’ set design is wonderful, a superb recreation Madeleine’s cluttered flat, complete with hundreds of books crammed onto the shelves and a fully working kitchen. The only technical mis-step comes with the incidental music, which suddenly strikes up at unintentionally comic moments whenever Martin’s name is mentioned.
Yet the main problem with Peter Gill’s measured production is Hare’s play itself. The two women here bemoan that they don’t want to be defined by their relationship to Martin; yet the majority of the time is spent discussing him. Also, considering that they both shared the same man over a period of 20 years, the two are remarkably friendly. Although there’s an initial air of tension, there’s only the occasional voice raised in anger.
Sheffield Theatres’ choice of plays for this David Hare season has certainly demonstrated the man’s considerable variety. Yet this piece of work, despite the terrific acting on display, falls a bit flat in comparison to the highs that have gone before.