Harold Pinter's Betrayal, Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, David Hare's Plenty and now Peter Nichols's Passion Play: the fashion for reviving the plays of the late Seventies and early Eighties continues with Nichols's award-winning meditation on menopausal marriage, which has opened in a new production by Michael Grandage at the Donmar Warehouse in London.
That the plays focus on issues that sell seats in the stalls - mid-life crises and marital infidelity among the middle classes - doubtless helps explain their reappearance. Yet they are not merely case notes for the maladjusted - they attempt a complex, constructive and moral take on the world. In the midst of the dinginess, despair and nihilism that one may witness nightly on the fringe - and that's just in the foyers and bars - the revivals are engaging, intelligent, even entertaining (you never know your luck), and none is more welcome than Passion Play.
Nichols has an impudent wit and a Pinterish nose for the weasels that lurk behind cocktail cabinets. His heroine, Eleanor, a mature wife and mother, believes in married love that is real, durable, tangible; her husband James, infatuated with a young girl, comes to doubt it can exist at all. Through adultery, his duty for the first time becomes clear: it is to sex, with both wife and mistress, preferably at the same time. When forced to choose between the two women, he plumps for Kate, the mistress, who gives him "sex without sensuality". He doesn't find her attractive, cannot possess her and, in any case, has no desire to leave his wife; but Kate has pure animal instinct and, once tasted, this cannot be forsaken.
It is not an outstanding philosophy. What is interesting is how close to the surface this retreat into pure and unrepentant self-indulgence is shown to be. The power of the play stems from the obviously affectionate nature of the marriage, James's eminent respectability and the specious quality of his reasoning, convincingly evoked in this production by the excellent James Laurenson.
If there is baseness, however, there is also compassion. James does not get his come-uppance in the traditional manner of the English theatre - indeed, he ends the play wanting "every night to fuck as though life depended on it, which of course it does". But Cheryl Lunghi as Eleanor makes the forlorn wife a sensitive, sympathetic, even sexy figure. James contends that all are equally selfish: his wife merely possesses a different kind of passion to his lust - marriage. Yet Eleanor shows some sort of humility and loyalty when the marriage is over and all reason to do so appears gone, while James, at any threat to his passion, has recourse only to a destructive rage, jealousy and self-confessed hate.
There is selflessness and seemingly a qualitative difference between the passions. Instincts towards both good and evil, and firm notions of what these things are, appear inalienable, and this is James's ultimate frustration. To present a seductive and sanitised case for pure indulgence while evoking interior revulsion is Nichols's considerable achievement. The audience shifts in its seats, alarmed and self-questioning; that he forces them to laugh, too, only furthers the discomfort.
An interesting device Nichols uses is to give the main characters alter egos on stage, played by Martin Jarvis and Cheryl Campbell. It is an interesting window on the inevitably highly interior business of adultery, yet you cannot help but feel that, if there are opportunities, there are also limitations.
What characters see and feel ought to be evident from what they do and say - isn't that what actors are for? By too much explaining, even in a dramatic vein, you lose something of the audience's imaginative response. And the alter egos are on stage almost continuously from the moment of the revelation of the adultery, the drama becoming their own interior affair rather than intimately relating to the main narrative. It can be no coincidence that the most psychologically interesting scenes - James's seduction and Eleanor's discovery of the love letter - occur prior to their arrival.
In a sensitive production such as this, however, the device effects some delightful and subtle moments - the alter ego Martin Jarvis collapses into James's lap on the sofa, exactly as his wife had done earlier in the play, so the two can have a long muse as how best to compose a love letter to Kate, their mistress. There are some nice ripostes, too - "Christ, the camaraderie of cock!" screams Eleanor's alter ego at James, who is all admiration for another's prowess.
The play is perhaps too long and rambling, and the characters somewhat featureless - apart from her emotional storms, we know little of Eleanor beyond her interest in music and underwear - yet in this simple staging, with fine acting, the play works. Nichols, needless to say, offers us no solutions, though "it's not the first time liberalism has failed us", as the awful Agnes bemoans in the play. At least he still asks questions and is witty in doing it - and for this, we should be doubly grateful.
Passion Play is at the Donmar Warehouse (020-7369 1732) until 10 June