Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Review Sunset At The Villa Thalia

Sunset At The Villa Thalia
by Alexei Kaye Campbell

Greek Encounter

It's the 1960s and would--be playwright Theo (Sam Crane) and his wife actress Charlotte (Pippa Nixon) are holidaying on a Greek island in an angular grey house perched on an outcrop of rocks. They meet, seemingly by chance, an older American couple. Watchful Harvey (Ben Miles) "works for the government" and June (Downton Abbey's Elizabeth McGovern)  is a former model with a fondness for alcohol.

In Sunset At The Villa Thalia directed by Simon Godwin, bumptious Harvey turns out to be something more than a public servant - more like a spook stepped out of the pages of Ian Fleming,  Graham Greene or John Le le Carré. He persuades Theo and Charlotte to take advantage of favourable exchange rates and make an offer for the house  belonging to the cash-straitened Greek owners who are emigrating to Sydney.

The first act ends with  the completion of the sale and the villa re-christened Thalia after the Greek Muse of comedy and poetry.  but also the couples hearing of the toppling of the civilian government by a military coup in the Greek capital.

By the time of the second act, nearly a decade later, Theo and Charlotte now have two young children. The era of dictatorship by the colonels has ended. Theo's career as a playwright has, it seems, progressed in Britain and Harvey and June come to stay,, the former beingremarkably well-informed about the English couple's lives but also troubled by his involvement with events in Chile.

TLT can still remember vaguely the old secondary school history  syllabus covering 1815-1914 she studied, before she was even a ingenue learner driver, in which the fight for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire was prominent, famously championed by Lord Byron with James Joyce in 1921, long after Greek independence,  requesting the colours of the Greek flag for the cover of  his novel Ulysses

Writer  Alexei Kaye Campbell was barely a year old, growing up in Athens, when his own family, Greek on his paternal side, was caught up in the 1967 Greek coup and he lived through the era of the colonels, its demise and the age of profligacy and debt which followed. So he should be in an ideal position to give the inside story.  

Yet the story that emerges in his play seems to combine stereotype characters with an archetypal tale of American interference in the internal affairs of European and South American countries during, we presume, the Cold War fight against the Soviets. 

Maybe the point is that Greece was already deracinated by 1967 but the play feels oddly derivative and patcched together with a Clybourne Park-type ghost ending. Still it offers Ben Miles an outsize role as the definitely unquiet American creating his own version of Plato's ideal chair as he pontificates on the ideal democracy while Elizabeth McGovern plays an elegant lush  with conviction.

Otherwise the piece seems somewhat Brit centric in a slightly smug way - the Brits stay sober and don't appear to meddle in other nations' affairs - although there is the slightest hint near the end that Theo may himself be a junior partner in other matters. Pippa Nixon does indignation well as Charlotte and maybe we should take with a pinch of salt Harvey's description of the Greek family's fate in Australia. Yet there seems to  very little subtext. 

Nevertheless the set designed by Hildegard Bechtler is evocative, even if the situation feels rather too lightly drawn. It seems we still have to rely on our own general knowledge and that old school syllabus and good old Google to flesh out the play.So it's an amber light for this foray into Mediterranean life.  

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