I never thought I’d see skiing for the first time in-person inside the Donmar Warehouse. There’s two kinds of skiing in Michael Longhurst’s production of Force Majeure: static, ironic little ski-dances, choreographed by Sasha Milavic Davies, and literal indoors, snowless skiing.
In the Donmar’s relatively modest, hemmed-in space, actors who aren’t the main family cut a swathe downwards across the white carpeted, raised slope of Jon Bausor’s set, appearing and disappearing in small, unhurried glimpses of grace. The main characters can’t access these moments of straightforward ease. This play adapts the sharp 2014 film directed and written by Ruben Östlund, who got his start directing ski films after working in various Alpine ski resorts, like the one seen here.
Force Majeure is about crises of things not happening: a deadly avalanche doesn’t happen, but briefly looks like a real threat to the holidaymaking lives of Tomas, Ebba, and their two children. Tomas (Rory Kinnear) doesn’t stay with his family during the danger, instead legging it with his gloves and his phone, and then queasily avoids acknowledging what happened. Dealing with it is dodged and deferred. Ebba (Lyndsey Marshal) talks to a friend of hers (Nathalie Armin) about the prospect of an affair, but hasn’t gone for it; Tomas cries, or he doesn’t quite, but would like to. Nothing neat and definitive happens, despite how welcome it would be. Kids try to get heard. Men and women eye each other, and pick at their bonds a bit.
Kinnear’s extremely vivid face, well able to magnify small expressions of discomfort, panic, or distracted self-satisfaction, and beam them right out is put to good use here, but the family dynamics are badly served by a lot of shouting, and shouting about shouting, and crying about shouting, despite how strong the rest of the players are (Vera and Harry were played by Henry and Florence Hunt on my press night). Marshal’s Ebba gathers momentum and certainty about her husband’s inability to face up to his dash as she repeats the story of the avalanche, but there isn’t as much interest in her as Tomas in the play despite her own mixed feelings about their respective roles in the family.
The supporting cast are brilliant, especially the lively and hilarious Siena Kelly and Sule Rimi as a couple infected by Tomas and Ebba’s story into their own (though more short-lived) crisis. Besides the fun, ridiculous ski dances, the comedy of the performances is definitely amplified compared to the film, a theatrical inflation perhaps to be expected, and aided by use of the hotel lift doors in the mountain backdrop. But it means less of a pervading sense of weird, awkwardly grinning unease in favour of shifting between jokes and drama, treated separately.
Having not seen the film of Force Majeure in several years, I’m suspicious of my memory of it and according expectations for this production, especially as it’s in English rather than Swedish. Do I risk receiving it as less complex and dry, broader, simply because it’s more immediate, and because it’s funny watching people waddle around in skiing outfits in a theatre? The elusiveness of the film doesn’t quite carry over, and the ending incident – a lift accident rather than the film’s ambiguously necessary coach evacuation which gives Tomas and Mats a chance to regain their sense of dignity – feels more straightforward but to little end.
I think that when I relish the loud and distracting backstage noises of cast members rushing to their positions in unwieldy costumes, or when I can’t get enough of seeing the actors through the white mist ‘avalanche smoke’ hanging around for a little, I’m after a sense of distance and withdrawal, to feel as off-balance as the stage to which the actors cling.
Longhurst’s production gets at something about the couple’s alienation from each other, the plush grimness of the setting, and Tomas’ increasing desperation, in flashes which deviate from the naturalism of Tim Price’s mostly faithful script to something more expressionistic. To Vivaldi cut through with a Euro club beat, Harry, Vera and Ebba brush their teeth in unison without Jonathan, and as we hear more explosions (controlled or not?), they lie down and still while he looks around at them. Tomas wanders around the resort and is briefly held by the red-lit, raw masculinity of a male sauna, roaring and bearing him on their shoulders, but that embrace can only last for a moment.
It’s these images which distinguish this endeavour and will stay with me, along with the skiing: the winking dances as well as the real, fittingly dry thing.
Force Majeure is on at the Donmar Warehouse till 5th February. More info here.