With the arrival of The Breath of Life at the Lyceum Theatre, all three of Sheffield's main theatres are now running David Hare plays. This, the most recent of the three, is a two-handed piece with the lead characters being two women in late-middle-age. The Sheffield production places Isla Blair and Patricia Hodge in the roles of Frances Beale and Madeleine Palmer, roles famously played by Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in the play's 2002 debut.
Frances arrives at Madeleine's flat in the Isle of Wight, wanting to meet the woman who had been her husband's mistress for twenty-five years, and the play is based on the conversations between the women over the course of less than one day, as they confront issues of growing older and coming to terms with the loss of love. Politically, it's Hare's reflection on the weaknesses of the middle-class 'baby boomers', although his points about what he perceives to be their loss of drive are ladled on slightly too thickly with somewhat unbelievable references to Madeleine having experiencEd Martin Luther King's preaching first-hand, for example.
For the most part, the play is rich with Hare's trademark witty dialogue (albeit not always 'natural' dialogue) and the two leads deliver this with aplomb, never noticeably dropping a line. Their repartee is a real highlight, as are their long monologues in Act Two. Blair is wonderfully believable as a middle-class wife, in the throes of a successful writing career, trying to reconcile her private turmoil with her professional curiosity for writing material. When her voice cracks with emotion, you very much feel for her. Hodge, likewise, does an excellent job of the intelligent, brittle, witty, guarded Madeleine, although her hair and costume seemed perhaps a little too conventional for a character who is supposed to be some sort of a radical.
The set is beautifully designed, with what appears to be a fully working kitchen and the props selected and arranged perfectly, from the stacks of National Geographic magazines on the bookshelves to the Moroccan tagine lurking on top of the kitchen cupboards. The lighting and sound cues when the name of the man who is in between these two women, Martin, is mentioned are a curious production choice, though, and detract from the otherwise natural setting.
There is one fundamental flaw with the play, however, and that is the nature of the women's relationships with Martin. We're told he is the most unique man either of them has ever met, yet everything we hear of him makes him sound shallow and self-interested. The moments where he is not discussed at all are by far the most interesting parts of the play. When Madeleine in particular talks about Martin, it is difficult to believe she ever fell for this man, much less spent twenty-five years having an affair with him. The idea of wife and mistress meeting might have proved a tantalising conceit in theory, but in practice I was left thinking that if the two women had been first and second wives, or even sisters, with Martin playing a more marginal role in proceedings, it would maybe have worked better. When Madeleine cries talking about Martin, it sounds a very false note, and doesn't seem in keeping with anything else we know of her. Hare's women claim they don't want to be defined by a man, and yet he does them both a disservice by continually defining them in terms of their relationship with the dreary-sounding Martin, when they clearly each have much more about them than this.
Despite the flaws in some of David Hare's work, the Sheffield season does a great job of showcasing how diverse his settings can be, and how brilliantly he can write devastating emotion and cutting humour. All three plays in the season offer a range of wonderful performances and direction - and no playwright can ask for a better tribute than that.
The Breath of Life is at the Lyceum, Sheffield until Saturday 26 February.