Review: The Forest (Hampstead Theatre)

Florian Zeller’s puzzles of the mind (The Father, The Mother, The Son, The Height of the Storm) continue to baffle audiences in his new play, The Forest, now in residence at Hampstead’s main house.

Nine actors inhabit three spaces on stage (designed by Anna Fleischle, lit by Hugh Vanstone) which eventually flow into each other by the end of the 80 minute runtime.

A suburban living room in a well-heeled family home becomes an indoor garden of flowers. A flat’s bedroom in the city is dominated by a double bed, where “moments” happen. An office doubles as a place of intrigue and interrogation.

Gina McKee in The Forest

The main topics seem to be mid-life crisis and infidelity, but there’s more going on here as The Man (a surgeon presumably in private practice, played by both Toby Stephens and Paul McGann, two sides of the same coin) gets caught up in his own worry and paranoia.

The Wife (Gina McKee), The Daughter (Millie Brady), and The Girlfriend (Angel Coulby) are cyphers in this story: underwritten, discarded, underestimated and exploited.

Coulby is even required to flash her boobs twice which seems rather regressive to telegraph ‘the other woman’. She does well with the predictable role she’s given.

Angel Coulby in The Forest

Elsewhere there are shadowy male figures: Male Friend (Silas Carson) and Man in Black (Finbar Lynch) are memorable, the former both icy and ingratiating, the latter a sinister clown of catastrophe.

The characters of Female Friend (Samantha Ramanee) and Young Man (Eddie Toll) are neither here nor there – the friend offering Morocco as a holiday escape for a dull marriage, the young man seeming to validate The Man’s own wandering eyes.

Christopher Hampton’s translation is, as ever, excellent, his collaboration with Zeller seamless. Jonathan Kent directs a confusing plot of repeated scenes, tantalising information, and dreamlike flags. The forest of the title may well be a broken mind, but could also be the hunter and the white stag in the story told by the Man in Black.

Toby Stephens and Silas Carson in The Forest

What we know, and don’t know, in our lives, is central, whether it is in the reality that unfolds before us or the half-truths that go on as we sleep or daydream.

McKee has a moment late on which is telling in its silence: she isn’t the woman her husband assumes her to be.

There are other moments I won’t spoil, but you have to keep watching and listening. The Forest is an interesting piece of theatre, but holds its meaning just out of reach.

You can watch The Forest at Hampstead Theatre until 12 March – book here.

Image credit: The Other Richard