Review: The Forest, Hampstead Theatre ★★★★☆

“Scenes play over and over again in my head,” says Pierre, (played by both Toby Stephens as Man 1 and Paul McGann as Man 2), a lauded surgeon whose affair with The Girlfriend (Angel Coulby) has spiralled out of control and is in danger of destroying the relationship with The Wife (Gina McKee). The scenes repeat on stage too.

In many ways The Forest is exactly what you would expect from Florian Zeller, and there are many similarities between The Forest and Zeller’s previous works, notably The Height of the Storm, also directed by Jonathan Kent, and his much-lauded The Father, for which he and his regular collaborator Christopher Hampton (who expertly translates The Forest) won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2020 Academy Awards. As with those plays, this a play that challenges our perception of what is real and what is the truth.

Toby Stephens and Silas Carson. The Other Richard.

The repeating scenes change subtly initially, with the changes becoming more dramatic as Pierre’s situation unravels. It seems that we are in Pierre’s mind – the repeating scenes are Pierre returning to series of events that lead him to where he is now. He is reexamining them over and over, and, as he does so, important events are remembered, or misremembered, or forgotten entirely. Did his daughter (Millie Brady) visit, or did she just plan to? Did Male Friend (Silas Carson) angrily question his integrity or was it a light hearted joke? The tone shifts and changes under our feet.

Towards the end Man 1 tells us about a dream where he was wearing a mask in front of an audience who are unaware he is wearing it; ‘What I’d first thought of as a mask was actually my real face, and that I no longer had an expression or any tears or any feeling – nothing.’ The division of Pierre in two presents those two sides to Pierre. Man 1 is the public and professional persona, while Man 2 is what lurks beneath.

Gina McKee and Paul McGann. Photo: The Other Richard.

As Man 1, Toby Stephens delivers a sublime performance, imbuing Pierre with the slick suaveness of a practised politician. McGann’s Man 2 is almost military-like, each movement clinically planned – he hints at the play’s outcome from the outset. By the end it seems that he is the mask that has overtaken Man 1.

There are some missteps along the way. Female characters suffer from underwriting, acting mainly as a vehicle for Pierre’s story – even though they play their key roles in it. Perhaps this can be attributed to Pierre’s remembrances focusing on himself rather than those around him. Despite this, McKee delivers something of a masterclass in acting, managing to express an entire subplot in just one long unmoving stare in the final scene.

Toby Stephens and Gina McKee. The Other Richard

There are superb performances across the cast, in addition to McKee, Stephens and McGann. Finbar Lynch is devlish as The Man in Black, while Coulby does well to pull her character away from the ‘other woman’ stereotype her character could be stuck with. Meanwhile, Anna Fleischle’s set is glorious. The living with its rich deep green walls and pink settee gives off an understated decadence that mirrors Pierre’s personality. It’s three compartments reveal surprises as the switch before finally coming together as the lines in reality blur further.

The Forest is at Hampstead Theatre until 12 March