Review: Nepenthe

Review: Nepenthe

Published with thanks to Theatre Bloggers, #LDNTheatreBloggers

A drug of forgetfulness, one that takes your sorrows away. The Greeks called it Nepenthe, Esthie (Zoe Hutmacher) calls it white wine. As with so many of today’s entitled elite, it is there to take the pain away. Maybe she drinks it so much because, as a luxury, she feels so undeserving of it – her horrific past as a prisoner in Auschwitz is the evil that the wine makes her forget. But now she’s a celebrity, the rich wife of a major movie studio head. She throws parties in LA, “It’s Hollywood! You can fix anything!” That is, until a script crosses her path, a script that reminds her of the horrors in the Block 24 Brothel. Keep it dead and buried, plaster on a smile and instruct her maid Mare-Thérèse to bring more of her Nepenthe, her safety blanket, her anti-depressant.

Neuburger’s writing is flippant and unapologetic, it has the potential to hit the mark with its blunt honesty and controversial material. At times Hutmacher is able to realise the dialogue and deliver a credible, somewhat emotional performance. The memories of her past wrap around her neck line the telephone cord she spends her time socialising on, choking the life out of her one gasp at a time. Whilst the pauses can give the writing room to breathe and impact, all too often the space in the production is down more to Hutmacher’s stumbling over her lines than a conscious decision. By contrast, there are other times when her lines are too rushed, the terse comedy falls flat and the atmosphere, which should be electrified and tense, only conveys the ramblings of a rich lush that can’t get her housekeeper to plan her next party in time.

Miriam Ibrahim’s direction is equally off the mark – using a single light and silence to evoke memories of a harrowing past only serves to detract from Hutmacher’s attempts at serious messaging. Combining live and recorded speech should add much needed variety, but further dilutes the experience. On the other hand, the decision not to incorporate any background noise leaves a void that allows the audience to process the atrocities of that period of the war.

Ultimately the play comes full circle back to where it started, Esthie (Hutmacher) on her chez lounge with a magazine, her Hollywood starlet sunglasses and a disdainful expression. The past is dead and buried, the experience long forgotten. But the scars still show, the memory burned into the subconscious, unlike this production that is lost as soon as it is over.

Director: Miriam Ibrahim

Writer: Rachel Neuburger

Design: Thomas Legnon

Cast: Zoe Hutmacher

Runs until 31 July as part of the Women and War Festival