Thursday 24 October 2019

Two Ladies

Bridge Theatre, London
12th October, 2019, matinee

We’re just the wives, with the little handbags and the big husbands

Almost two years after opening, I can’t help but feel that The Bridge Theatre still hasn’t quite come into its own. It’s seen a mix of some well-received Shakespeare, and big acting names counter-balanced with often under-developed and slightly odd material. Nancy Harris’ new play Two Ladies, focusing on the First Ladies of the US and French Presidents, is consistent with this. However, whilst the play occasionally borders on the ludicrous, it’s always engaging and boasts two fine central performances.

Anna Fleischle has designed a corporate conference room on the Cote-d’Azur: clean and empty, with a potted plant, stacks of chairs, and glass walls. Downstairs, Presidents, Prime Ministers and Chancellors gather for an emergency meeting. Five coordinated terrorist attacks have targeted cities across the US. America’s knee-jerk reaction is to launch an air strike to retaliate, now calling upon other world powers to show their support. But this is a side room to the main event. Here we meet two first ladies, along with their PAs, yes-men and spin doctors, in what is a blisteringly theatrical opening scene. Sirens fill the air as Sophia (Zrinka Cvitešić) is rushed in by her entourage covered in blood, her arms and designer dress caked in thick red. 

It’s established that Sophia has had animal blood thrown over her by protestors of her husband. However, after reading the programme notes about Lyndon B Johnson being sworn in as President as Jackie Kennedy stood nearby still covered in her husband’s blood, the sight is all the more shocking. They disrupt Helen (Zoe Wanamaker) who was alone, her mind occupied by her own political and personal machinations, but the two are now in lockdown together, forced to make small talk.

This play is fiction, but as we learn more about the characters, there are a number of similarities between them and their real-life counterparts. Helen is the English, older wife of France’s premier, about to play the victim in a scandal over her husband’s infidelity. Sophia is the Eastern European glamourous wife of her older husband, the US President. The result is a curious amalgamation of real-life personae, making it semi-satirical but also too far removed from reality to have much of an effect. This becomes apparent when the situation turns towards the absurd. Sophia takes out a bottle of Chanel No5, telling Helen its filled with deadly poison. That’s right, it’s Chekhov’s poison perfume bottle! As the play progresses, there is an overt mixing of the personal and political which sees the women conspire to kill their husbands for the wider good. Their initial plan of committing suicide to protest their other halves reaping havoc is changed when a well-placed maid may provide the opportunity to make a bigger protest. We don’t know if their plan succeeds, but beneath the melodrama, there’s a belief in the two women that they want to change the world for the better, something to which their power-driven, war-mongering husbands are not committed.

Harris’ play and Nicholas Hytner’s steady production are always entertaining and enjoyable, even if they do perhaps overbalance into the realms of the preposterous. I also thought Hytner’s reliance on the underscoring synth chords (music by Grant Olding) to build up the tension gave it a bit of a Murder, She Wrote vibe. The lead performances help the play from teetering over the edge. Wanamaker goes from being funny to serious with conviction. Cvitešić is stylish, collected, dignified and sharp as the US first lady, an articulate character who’s never been portrayed as she really is. Two Ladies seems to be political satire, melodrama, and women putting the world to rights all rolled into one play.

Two Ladies plays at The Bridge Theatre until 26th October.

Zoe Wanamaker in Two Ladies.
Credit: Helen Maybanks

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