With flashing lights, the sounds of gunfire, explosions and shattering glass, the sanctuary of a presidential palace in some unspecified, freezing urban war zone is under threat. Four women await their fates: the President’s wife, Micheleine in her designer outfit and matching accessories; her “best friend” (the pair really hate each other), Genevieve, widow of an artist whose painting hangs in the Palace’s reception room; A photographer from another country, Kathryn, waiting to take a portrait of the absent President; and a translator, Gilma, a local girl and compulsive thief. Abi Morgan draws these characters vividly, with sharp and insightful dialogue and superb performances flesh them out, but then Morgan places them in a context that is frustratingly vague and enigmatic. Scenes are played and re-played, without being fully explained; characters talk to each other, to themselves, to the audience and through the translator/mistranslator and we are often unsure as to which. Sometimes Morgan’s structure is Pinteresque, but the interaction of the women is never less than intriguing. Director Robert Hastie packs the play with edginess and tension and Peter McKintosh’s cold and spacious art deco set is magnificent. Sinead Cusack’s bitchy and defiant Micheleine dominates most scenes, complemented by Michelle Fairley’s nervy and self-deluding Genevieve. Genevieve O’Reilly’s Kathryn is an icy outsider, here to observe and record, but not immune to emotional involvement. Zawe Ashton’s Gilma is a mischievous upstart, surveying the palace’s splendour whilst eager to gain from the uprising on the streets outside. Perhaps the play suffers from Morgan being a little more clever than she needs to be; perhaps a more straightforward linear narrative could have helped it to arrive at a more satisfying conclusion. As things are, this is an engrossing 95 minutes that leaves behind it a niggling feeling that it should have been so much better.
Performance date: 14 August 2015