The Son (Duke of York’s)

Florian Zeller’s third play in his family trilogy, after The Father and The Mother, is again translated by Christopher Hampton, and brought to the London stage.

Pierre has left his former wife, Anne, and their teenage son, Nicolas, to set up a new home amd family with Sofia and their baby, Sacha. Nicolas is in a period of crisis – before the start of the play proper, he is furiously writing his thoughts in black marker on the bright white walls which encompass the set.

John Light and Laurie Kynaston in The Son
John Light and Laurie Kynaston in The Son

As Anne can no longer cope with her son’s silence and truancy, he comes to live with dad but remains isolated, capable for very brief moments of happiness, but also crushing resentment of the close-knit family of three which has been ripped apart.

The staging by director Michael Longhurst and designer Lizzie Clachan allows for ghostly presences, trashed surroundings, overlapping scenes, and unstated elegance. The white-walled space acts as a palatial living space, a hospital waiting room, and a cluttered office. It also acts as the prison within Nicolas’s mind as he struggles just to live.

John Light, Amanda Abbington, Laurie Kynaston in The Son
John Light, Amanda Abbington, Laurie Kynaston in The Son

John Light, Laurie Kynaston, Amanda Abbington and Amaka Okafor are all good in their roles, although Abbington is a little underused and Okafor’s Sofia remains slightly unsympathetic to the end. I disliked the attempt at a twist ending, which felt tacked on and pushed the play just beyond an effective stopping point.

There are excellent scenes: Pierre’s impotent fear at his son’s attempts to hide his physical and emotional pain; the “Happy” dance sequence; the icy coolness of the first scene between Pierre and Anne set against their closeness in the hospital; the guarded conversation between Sofia and Nicolas as she gets herself ready for a night out.

John Light and Amaka Okafor in The Son
John Light and Amaka Okafor in The Son

Small moments within a time of depression and crisis, where Nicolas’s decline is missed by everyone around him; even, perhaps, the psychiatrist who hides behind the logic of medicine.

The Son is not quite as successful as The Father or last year’s The Height of the Storm. It has a certain emotional punch, and Zeller’s usual economical tautness of script, but for me something disconnected. Rather than feeling I was in the room with these characters, it was more outside a pane of glass, looking in from some remote spot.

By the end, it seems that this family will never fit together in quite the same way, unlike the toy trucks which are left side by side, incongruous to a grown-up space.

The Son originally played at the Kiln Theatre, and opened at the Duke of York’s on 24 August 2019 for a limited season. Photo credits Marc Brenner.

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Mary Stuart (Duke of York’s)

Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots were both of the same Royal blood, both anointed monarchs, and both passionate.

This production plays with the similarities and differences between the Queens by having both leading actresses playing one or the other parts on the toss of a coin.

Yesterday afternoon Lia Williams played Mary and Juliet Stevenson was Elizabeth. Mary was quick, impulsive, frustrated, and every inch a queen even when imprisoned in bare walls.

Elizabeth is proud and aloof, commanding her courtiers with a click and primping her appearance with a compact mirror. A public virgin she privately romps with the duplicitous Leicester (John Light) while toying with a promise of marriage from France.

Mary, though, three times a wife, a mother, a lover. Also with Leicester, which may be her downfall, and his. She seethes at her treatment and long imprisonment when seeking asylum – this play is on the side of her innocence – but equally she seeks Elizabeth’s acknowledgement as an equal.

The meeting never happened in history but here it works well within the machinations of state and politics. Stevenson’s Elizabeth is imperious enough to recover quickly following the shock of seeing the woman who has plagued her and caused her endless worry standing before her in the garden at Fotheringay.

Mary’s gamble, hoping for the mercy of another monarch, causes her to move quickly towards execution; a misfire in which Elizabeth’s pride is worked on by a weasley Burleigh, despite the best efforts of a sympathetic yet tradition-bound Talbot (a very strong performance from Michael Byrne).

The slight amusement of early scenes evaporates in Act Four as Mary’s fate is sealed and her execution looms. A Catholic, she is allowed her last communion and to walk to the block in the company of her nurse (Carmen Munroe).

The scene where Elizabeth is garbed in her white face, boned corset and dress, pearls, ruff and wig, is juxtaposed with Mary reduced to a simple shift, majesty removed but morally victorious. It’s an emotional piece which is riveting and accompanied by a new song by Laura Marling.

Robert Icke directs Friedrich Schiller’s play, in a sparse set with modern dressed characters, an explosive script, and two very strong women who are closer together than they might think.

Mary gains a strange sense of freedom while Elizabeth remains uneasy and trapped with the guilt of her regicide. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, indeed.