My Night With Reg to give the Donmar Warehouse a summer hit with an all-male cast; this year he's back with an all-female cast and a less obviously crowd-pleasing play. An early work by Abi Morgan, now better-known as a TV writer, gets its belated London preview as four women meet in a room whose Splendour may soon be gone. We're in an unnamed country, in the palace of a dictatorial president who's commissioned a new photo-portrait from foreign photojournalist Kathryn (Genevieve O'Reilly.) He, however, has not shown up so the first lady, Micheleine (Sinéad Cusack) is playing hostess. Although the whole play is spoken in English, the conceit is that Kathryn doesn't speak the local language, so also present is Zawe Ashton as interpreter Gilma, who may be pretty bad at her job, or may understand a lot more of what both women are saying than she's willing to let on.
Feeling outnumbered, Micheleine has invited along a friend to keep her company: Genevieve (Michelle Fairley) was the wife of the president's oldest friend, an artist who died a few years ago in an apparent suicide.
Of course in the kind of regime we're dealing with there's likely to be a different explanation behind a suspicious death, and while she'd never say it to the first lady, Genevieve knows that the truth lies with a never-seen but much-discussed painting that dominates the scene - a commission that her late husband added an obvious political message to. So she's not quite the solace Micheleine had hoped for in a difficult time: While the four women talk around the obvious, the country is breaking out into civil war and as the women wait, pretending the president might actually return, it's more likely to be rebel troops who next come through the doors.
Peter McKintosh's set puts the action in a cleared circle in the middle of piles of shattered glass, reflecting not just the violence outside the window but also the fractured nature of Morgan's storytelling. The women alternately talk to each other and to the audience, revealing the thoughts behind the polite façade; and the action keeps jumping back to the beginning and Genevieve's arrival, each time playing out differently, the tensions hidden under politeness at first, brought out as the scene replays and small-talk gets replaced by terse, angry exchanges.
It's a clever conceit and well-handled, although the repetition becomes frustrating after a while - it betrays at times that it's an early piece, the writer still finding her voice and overstating the point. But there's an interesting quartet of women centred on Cusack's Micheleine, her imperious manner the only way she knows how to behave any more, even as her downfall approaches. Fairley and Ashton, whose character comes from the oppressed north of the country but claims to have embraced the president's policies, also provide powerful performances of tension just about managing to be kept under the surface. Overall a strange and intriguing piece that's perhaps more interesting to look back on than it is at the time.
Splendour by Abi Morgan is booking until the 26th of September at the Donmar Warehouse.
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.