Theatre review

The Height of the Storm

old couple james coates
“Old Couple” by James Coates

We grow old, we grow old, but unlike the solitary Prufrock, the central characters in Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm have — or had, or always will have — each other. The play establishes a robust fifty-year marriage between a pragmatic wife and a brilliant writer. It then explores the inevitable, inescapable string of losses confronting long-lasting relationships: loss of a loved one, loss of a partner, loss of reason, loss of identity, loss of moorings, loss of meaning. Where is home if you are not here? What is a meal if you did not prepare it or I am not hungry for it? What is the meaning of my life if I cannot remember it, and you cannot decipher my writing or access my thoughts?

The poignancy of this lean, evocative memory play is palpable. And the human all too human performances of the brilliant Jonathan Pryce, alternately frail and diminished and fervent and affectionate but always suffused by devotion to his mate, and a rock-steady Eileen Atkins, make The Height of the Storm almost unbearably real. So much so that it takes a while to realize that the piece is completely subjective: it is difficult to immediately fix in any interaction between sets of characters whose reality we are in  — a reality that often shifts within the context of that interaction — and impossible to know what the facts of this family’s life are. Which makes it all the more poignant, as the two grown daughters come home — for a weekend? for a funeral? now? in the past? all of these? — and attempt to grapple with the situation as their parents drift in and out physically and/or mentally. And even the precise nature of that situation shifts unfixedly. No one knows — can know — what to do to help or support the others, because each is essentially alone, informed by their own limited, and largely unshared, perspective. Except for the two forged together over a half century, but even between them, the play suggests, there might be secrets and locked doors.

All of which recalled this Somerset Maugham quote, from The Moon and Sixpence:

Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them.

I fear I have made the work sound hopelessly bleak. But it isn’t. It is the human condition, the inability to not ever know an objective truth, but rather to have to guess at it. And with those we love, we need to try to make those guesses as accurate and judgment-free as possible.

And maybe sometimes not to try to guess at all, just accept.

And as we walked back to the train, tears still wet on my cheeks, leaning into Steve, I heard two young men behind us praising the acting but admitting that they had early on realized this wasn’t going to be something for them. And it wasn’t. I think this is a play that speaks more to those who have come up against mortality.

3 thoughts on “The Height of the Storm”

  1. A compelling review, Nita, which makes me want to see the film. The co-occurrence of my essential apartness/aloneness within the containing steadiness of a longstanding relatedness, the always imperfect communication of my self-states to loved ones along with the equally imperfect readings by others of my signals and “signs” (to quote Maugham), the subjective stew we’re all caught up in, the impossibility of ever truly knowing others or being known –– these existential truths turn abiding relationships into ongoing acts of faith. As if those in longstanding relationships are expressive tightrope walkers, taking their best steps while (or because) supported by an invisible safety net.

    The Somerset Maugham quote is perfect. That fact that in the end we’re all just guessing and/or accepting, as you point out, is perfect. And your final paragraph, the more personal one, is perfect. Because there IS a mortality factor at play here: our faith in an “invisible safety net” is not there in the salad days of a relationship; there will be vows and promises at the altar and hopes for the journey ahead –– but a faith that we’ll be “held” over time, and all the more so when that time is running out, well that comes with the passage of years.

    1. The play is beautiful. I know you would really get a lot out of it — you’ve gotten so much just out of my review. You have obviously done much thinking on this, and your conclusions are alternately melancholic, realistic, and romantic. A lovely subjective stew indeed.

      As to the Maugham quote, I have treasured it since I was fifteen when I first read Moon and Sixpence. In those days, I rather admired the self-willed, unconventional Gauguin character. Later, I found my sympathies with Mrs. Gauguin and the six little ones…

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