Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Two old friends explore the past in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Sandor Marai’s classic novel.

“You killed something in me all those years ago, and tonight I’m going to kill something in you” commands Jeremy Irons’ old General as he stalks his way around a sparsely furnished hunting lodge. His voice is smooth but lined with causticity. He’s had half a lifetime to design this moment. His prey for the evening is Konrad (Patrick Malahide) an old friend who has returned to Hungary via war ravaged Europe for one last stand with his old friend and fellow soldier. Attended by an enfeebled but resiliently stoic presence he takes his place in the General’s lodge. The candles are burning. The past is being roused, about to be hauntingly relived after 41 years.

Adapted from Sandor Marai’s 1942 novel, Embers, (The Candles Burn Right Down) was serendipitously rediscovered on a French Publishers backlist by Roberto Calasso, almost ten years after Marai shot himself in 1989. The discovery served to simultaneously re canonise Marai as the literary genius he was, whilst affording a whole new generation the opportunity to experience his work .Christopher Hampton’s vital and true adaptation combined with Michael Blakemore’s spare but precise direction, allow both Jeremy Irons and Patrick Malahide to relish in their respective roles, each one masterfully tapping into the germination of fear in the male psyche and the fragility of selfhood- themes that were to dominate Marai’s earlier novels and essays.

The plays agon hinges on a number of exact and particular events from the past- chiefly a hunting trip where the now hunter was the hunted, and perhaps most importantly, Henrik’s wife Krizstina and her final words to him- “what a coward”- the meaning of which has been tormenting him for 41 years. What did she mean? To whom was she referring?

Whilst Henrik suspects Konrad had an affair with his wife, what really grates with him is the prospect of them having shared an intimate and close relationship- a proposition his vanity finds repulsive. Krizstina’s omnipresence is paramount to the plays success and her rebirth through language (Henrik’s recall in particular) charges each exchange with palpable emotion, so embedded is she in the mind of each man.

As an ex General for the Hungarian Army, Jeremy Irons is superb, suavely allowing his character to probe the recesses of an old friendship, whilst expertly twisting the machinations of his friends bruised psyche with the exactness and precision of a Surgeon General. He is the essence of melancholy, tempered only by his bitterness, sustained by a singular and unrelenting need for vengeance. But whereas mere melancholy can evoke a simple and vast capacity for reflection, Irons goes one step further, at turns revealing a studied and detailed portrait of a man who has not only relived, but dissected each second of that night 41 years ago, when his life was to change forever. One can feel the clenching of his mind, his granite like expression etched with guilt and longing.

As Konrad, Patrick Malahide says considerably less than Irons but he is no less mesmerising as a result. It would be easy for him to tune out and think about the weekend’s chores such are the duration of Irons’ monologues, but it’s obvious he doesn’t. Contorting his already intense countenance as each graciously constructed accusation is issued, he is evidently feeling the hurt that is intended.

“She asked for me when she was dying. Me. I tell you that just for your own information” quips Henrik when describing his wife’s final days. Konrad’s silence is betrayed only by the slow, certain disintegration of an already crumbling interior life and it isn’t long before his discomfort is palpable. Twisting and squirming in his armchair, in the same spot he sat all those years ago, there appears no end to the verbal and psychological slaying he is receiving. Yet one senses it’s what he wants and there is something noble in the way he endures.

Irons’ nuanced, measured delivery of his lines fills up the theatre, the coolness of his tenor tightened only by spiteful inflections. He canvasses many issues; betrayal, passion, vengeance, solitude and at one point offers a striking take on the nature of real friendship- an experience he has never had. Common interests and shared understandings do not constitute a friendship he contends. Instead he cites “friendship” as being possessed of an erotically pure quality, without sexual connotation, yet richly and romantically intangible. Ideas gleaned from reading Plato amid the many lonely years spent finessing the lost experiences and emotions of a now fading life.

After describing in chilling and vivid terms the details of their last hunt together and the moment he suspects his friend turned the gun on him he counters audience expectations by saying “when you pointed that gun at the back of my head our friendship was at its strongest point, then at that exact moment.” It seems an absurd notion but one that fits perfectly with the plays intensity and seamless shifts in mood.

One feels intense sorrow and in a sense pity for these tragic figures and the lives that have unfolded around them, never penetrated by either one. Embers exists and pulsates through the tightness and brilliance of dialogue, its power residing in its ability to articulate pain and the inner workings of the mind. It draws from the darkest yet most basic human thoughts, desires and fears, and from the kind of universal repository of emotion and memory that is buried in everyone.

Resolution and closure are elusive and far less potent than the unanswered, and the richness of ambiguity is no better realised than in the dying moments of the play when Henrik hurls Krizstina’s diary into the fire. As the flames devour the tiny book, her thoughts in it gone forever, both men stare longingly into the flames. Their faces are grave, the flames dancing across their creased brows. Granite like they sit, as if paralyzed, yet strangely and hauntingly united once again.

Embers is currently showing at The Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mats; Wed & Sat 2.30pm.
Season ends on June 24.