Embers, Duke of York Theatre, London, 15 February - 24 June 2006 * * *|
The Hungarian Sandor Marai's
novel Embers was an unlikely bestseller in 2002. Published for the first
time in English sixty years after it was written, it is an elegiac discourse
on friendship, love, honour and betrayal, but it seems a strange choice for
Christopher Hampton to adapt for the stage as nothing actually happens in
the novel and, as a result, the second half of the play is virtually a
At the outset we see ex-general Henrik (Jeremy Irons) waiting agitatedly in
his Hungarian castle (grandly evoked in Peter J. Davison's high-walled
design) for the arrival of a close friend, Konrad (Patrick Malahide), whom
he has not seen for 41 years.
Over the course of the evening we learn why they became estranged, and how
the events of their youth cast a shadow over the rest of their lives.
It transpires that Konrad had suddenly resigned as an officer in the army
and left Hungary for the Tropics in 1899 without explanation. Henrik
believes that Konrad had been having an affair with his wife, and that
Konrad had intended to shoot him on a hunting trip but changed his mind.
After Konrad's departure, Henrik and his wife did not speak to each other
right up until she died 8 years later. Since then Henrik has been
obsessively waiting to be face to face with Konrad once again.
The events of the past are revealed fairly early on - or at least Henrik's
version of them - as the focus is not on what actually happened but on why
it happened. Was Konrad jealous of Henrik's wealth and position, or did
Henrik's wife turn to Konrad because he showed her more genuine love than
The result is a subtle dissection of the psychology and motivation of male
rivalry and comradeship, with the flaming passions of youth being recalled
by two old men for whom the fire is almost out.
Hampton certainly captures the delicate ambiguities of Marai's probing but
this is very much a civilized conversation piece rather than a fully fledged
drama: plenty of good talk with virtually no suspense.
There is a strong sense of the ending of an era, as these two survivors from
the old Austro-Hungarian Empire talk in a part of Europe which is just about
to be violently caught up in the fight between fascism and communism. It's
just that it would be nice to have more conflict on stage to liven up
What helps to retain our interest is two very strong performances under the
unobtrusive direction of Michael Blakemore. As Henrik, the bearded Irons
(triumphantly returning to the West End after 18 years) has the straight
back and formal bearing of an aristocratic soldier. He never loses his
gracious manners even when condemning his friend for gross disloyalty but
still shows the cancer of bitterness and regret that has eaten away his life
all these years.
As Konrad, Malahide does remarkably well to suggest the deep world-weariness
of a man who killed the vital spark in himself when young, especially after
the interval when his role is basically to listen to Henrik's
And Jean Boht manages to pack in a lifetime's solicitude in her cameo role
as the nonagenarian Nini, who was Henrik's wet-nurse at the beginning of his
life and is now his sole companion at the end.
- Neil Dowden
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