Friday, 10 June 2016

Theatre review: Sunset at the Villa Thalia

A playwright who has the same background as me - half-English, half-Greek - Alexi Kaye Campbell has dealt with a variety of themes, and now writes a play that looks at, or at the very least is set in, Greece. The subject matter of the military junta of the colonels in the late '60s and early '70s is a bit before my time and, while I wouldn't say it was a taboo subject when I was growing up, it's not something I was taught at school or know that much about. Not that Sunset at the Villa Thalia tackles Papadopoulos & co directly; Act I takes place in 1967, on the very day of the coup, but the setting is one where its influence is unlikely to be felt anytime soon: The island of Skiathos where young English couple Charlotte (Pippa Nixon) and Theo (Sam Crane) are renting a house from a local family for a few weeks.

After getting chatting to an older American couple in the town, they invite the enigmatic Harvey (Ben Miles) and ouzo-swigging June (Elizabeth McGovern) back to the villa for drinks.

When they discover the house's owner (Christos Callow) and his daughter Maria (Glykeria Dimou) are emigrating to Australia and desperate for cash, Harvey convinces Theo and Charlotte to buy the house for a pittance, despite Maria's concerns about losing her roots to the place she was born. Nine years later, with the dictatorship on the mainland overthrown, things on the island don't look too different but the characters' comfort has come at a cost to the less fortunate.

Hildegard Bechtler's characteristically solid set thrusts out into the Dorfman audience, helping create the atmosphere of a Greek island village over the course of two sunsets (actually three, as we get a flashback to Maria with Eve Polycarpou as her late grandmother,) although it does mean director Simon Godwin has a tendency to block his actors with their backs to the audience when they're on the apron. In the central quartet, McGovern gets an amusing but fairly one-note role as the drunken June, and Crane is particularly short-changed as the bland playwright Theo (although Ian said it was worth the trip just for his hip-swiveling in the Greek dancing scene.) Their partners fare better, the always-good Nixon conflicted and explosive as Charlotte, while Miles' Harvey has a tendency to turn positively Mephistophilian.

This is down to his mysterious job with the US government, described as a "floater" - not a particularly buoyant turd (although maybe, metaphorically,) but someone who's always flitting around the world "problem-solving." This seems to come down to exerting American influence to create coups like the 1967 Greek one (we also get a reference to his similar work in Chile having gone particularly badly for him,) and this imposition of a very particular definition of democracy is what the play ultimately comes down to - although Kaye Campbell seems to be toying with all sorts of ideas over the course of the two hours.

While I haven't read reviews, I've got the impression that Sunset at the Villa Thalia hasn't had a particularly warm response, and I think this wooliness about exactly what the play is meant to be about is probably a factor: It's certainly not really about Greece either in the past or present, but it comes with a certain vagueness about whether it's really about the extent of America's influence over smaller nations in the 20th century, or about personal responsibility that takes in players like Charlotte and Theo, who on a much smaller scale are having a destructive effect too. So it's a bit of a frustrating, meandering watch, but for the most part an interesting one too.

Sunset at the Villa Thalia by Alexi Kaye Campbell is booking in repertory* until the 4th of August at the National Theatre's Dorfman.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

*it looks like, once The Flick comes out of rep, the Dorfman is moving to having only a single show running at any one time; hopefully this means they're looking at going back to being a bit more creative with the studio staging.

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