Thursday, 2 June 2016

Theatre Review: Sunset At The Villa Thalia (National Theatre)

Alexi Kaye Campbell remains best known for The Pride, his 2008 play (which debuted at the Royal Court and was later presented Off-Broadway) which juxtaposed two versions of gay experience: one set  in the repressed '50s, the other in the libertine 00s. Just opened in the National Theatre’s Dorfman auditorium, Campbell’s new play, Sunset at the Villa Thalia, is also structured with a significant, albeit much less radical, time leap. Its second Act moves ahead nine years to assess the fall-out of various decisions made by its quartet of protagonists.

The drama opens on the Greek island of Skiathos in 1967, on the cusp of the coup that placed the military in power for seven years. An English couple, Theo and Charlotte, are staying on the island, as Theo, a writer, works on his new play. Theo and Charlotte have made the acquaintance of an older American couple, Harvey and June. Harvey, it emerges, works for the US government, and may be implicated in the political unrest engulfing the country. Under his highly persuasive influence, Theo and Charlotte end up purchasing the villa in which they’re spending their trip, buying it off of Stamatis and his daughter Maria, who are emigrating to Australia.

Fast-forward nine years and Theo and Charlotte appear to have settled  into life on the island, and are raising a family there. But the reappearance of June and Harvey, jaded from  their recent experience in Chile,  brings both personal and political tensions to the fore. 
Talky, intimate and low-key, Campbell’s play is old-fashioned in its virtues, taking a potent political situation and dramatising it through the highly relatable personal interactions of its protagonists. At times the piece might put you in mind of Clare Peploe’s  1988 film  High Season, which explored the relations between ex-pats and Greek islanders in a more comedic vein, or even of Luca Guadagnino’s recent, much more highly strung A Bigger Splash.

At first it looks like the play will simply be pitting an arty British couple against a pair of brash American imperialists, but Campbell complicates this set-up in subtle and intriguing ways, giving the actors many more nuances to play with. The cast is superb, with terrific, detailed work from Ben Miles as the charismatic Harvey, Pippa Nixon as the increasingly self-righteous Charlotte, and Sam Crane as the dreamer Theo. Elizabeth McGovern very touchingly conveys the loneliness and quiet despair underpinning June’s breezy persona, and there’s vivid support from Christos Callow and Glykeria Dimou as the  islanders.

Playing out on Hildegard Bechtler’s superbly realistic villa terrace set, and with evocative lighting by Natasha Chivers and a fine sound design by Tom Gibbons, Simon Godwin’s production finds the writing’s strengths and conjures place and period wonderfully well.  I’m not too sure that Campbell’s suggestion that the purchase of a property abroad can wreak damage comparable to American interventionism stands up to much scrutiny, and in its final stages the play comes perilously close to taking an anti-migration stance, implying that the Greeks' decision to move out of the country (and the decision of the English to move in) has violated some kind of natural, spiritual or historical order.   Still, this is an absorbing new play that, in its quiet way, gives much to debate, making for a rewarding, worthwhile evening.

Reviewed for PopMatters. 

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