Now a celebrated television and screenwriter, Abi Morgan’s early work for theatre is much less widely acknowledged. Josie Rourke has programmed her 2000 play, Splendour, with the suggestion that it “missed its moment” when it premiered.
Set in an unspecified state undergoing civil war and revolution, a photojournalist has been sent to take a portrait of the outgoing dictator. Inevitably, he has been held up, forcing her to wait at the presidential palace with his wife, her friend and the translator until he arrives. The writing is neat and inventive, the play lasting just over an hour and a half. The first half revolves around the smashing of a red vase. Just before the decisive moment occurs, it jumps back in time to when the last guest arrived and the scene starts over, this time laced with new details, as the significance of the moment we are witnessing is gradually revealed.
The repetitions test each guest’s ability to uphold the everyday lies which are becoming evermore transparent. But it is in Sinead Cusack playing Micheleine, the tyrant’s wife where we see the mask slip most. Cusack is wonderful – serene and unfazed, for so long the waves of revolution that batter the city fail to move her. She glides around her palace with ease, pulling up her guests on their social indiscretions, not a hair out of place.
But the political ground is shifting and it transpires that Gilma, the young translator, is herself from the rebellious north. Culturally as well as financially impoverished she has spent the evening pilfering Siberian shot glasses, rifling the purses of other guests and pinching her favourite VHS of Toy Story.
Zawe Ashton is suitably strained and awkward as the translator. At points she might be a nervous intern expelling guffaws of laughter and inappropriate humour, but she also shows us the exhausted poverty Gilma is subjected to. She is forced to steal for her family but Ashton shows us that there is wicked pleasure in the process too. As her stocks rise, there is a giddy lightness about Ashton and a disconcerting ease with which she takes control.
Once Micheleine has fallen, all that the light-fingered translator must do is ask, and the genuine zebra skin shoes are hers. The balance of the entire state has shifted and the Northerners have the whip hand. Despite the intricate structure of the play it never feels tricksy or laborious. Robert Hastie favours simplicity, and it works beautifully, especially in the sincerity of these final moments.
The final note is the click of the camera’s shutter which is the sound of an empire falling. But Micheleine does not resist, choosing to hold her composure rather than beg for mercy. She steps barefoot out into the splintered glass of the smashed vase and we see a glimmer of the indignity and the violence which will soon be wreaked upon her by her enemies.