Does it still resonate? That is the obvious question to ask about Patrick Marber’s play, which in 1997 seemed to reflect the sexual mores of the moment and which was visibly influenced by Steven Soderbergh’s lower-case movie, sex, lies and videotape.
The good news – or bad news, depending on your point of view – is that Marber’s portrait of the failure of men and women to achieve spiritual as well as sexual intimacy seems as powerful and pertinent as ever.
For all its debt to Soderbergh, the play reminds me of the great Viennese dramatist Arthur Schnitzler in its portrayal of the daisy-chain of love and lust. It starts with a meeting in a hospital between the waif-like Alice, nursing a minor injury, and Dan, a newspaper obituarist and would-be novelist.
But, although they start an affair, Dan is simultaneously attracted to a photographer, Anna, who specialises in wistful portraits of sad strangers. While Anna is equally drawn to Dan, she marries a dermatologist, Larry, whom she guiltily betrays and who sporadically deceives her.
“O tell me the truth about love,” cried Auden; and, even if Marber’s play is not the whole truth, it pins down with merciless flair the gulf between the sexes. Marber is especially, even excessively, hard on men who are seen as barely capable of making a total emotional commitment: in the play’s most piercing line, Anna complains to Alice of men that “they love the way we make them feel but not us”.
Debatable as that may be, Marber shows that all four characters still have a bottomless capacity for suffering and that the new freedoms – and the play embraces laptop sex and lapdance clubs – have done nothing to resolve the pain and anxiety of intimate relationships.
It is that element of suffering that animates David Leveaux’s fine production in which surface chic is offset by emotional intensity. Marber’s Larry may be an upwardly mobile medical professional but, in the scene where he discovers Anna’s infidelity, Rufus Sewell reveals a self-abasing rage and torment that is truly shocking to behold.
Equally, Anna may be a highly successful snapper whose portraits adorn gallery walls and museum shops, but Nancy Carroll’s vividly expressive eyes convey the same vulnerability and solitude she finds in her subjects.
A comparable angst is visible in the other two actors in an expertly balanced quartet. Oliver Chris as Dan suggests a man conscious of his own inadequacies as a writer and of his capacity to destroy any potentially happy relationship.
Rachel Redford, a relative newcomer, is also magnetic as the mysterious Alice: she conveys all the character’s sexual awareness, while also hinting at an inner secret behind the youthful assurance.
Elegantly designed by Bunny Christie to evoke a world of minimalist modishness, this is a production that convinces one that Marber’s play is much more than the product of its time.
It is an alarmingly durable, well-structured play about the distance between men and women and the restless neediness of love.
- Until 4 April. Venue: Donmar Warehouse, London