“He’s very, very tolerant,” Christopher Hampton says of playwright Florian Zeller. That may explain why Hampton’s sixth translation of Zeller’s work has arrived in New York City with the Manhattan Theatre Club production of The Height of the Storm, currently playing the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through November 24.
This particular production, however, found Hampton consulting much more with Zeller. “It’s more elusive and poetic,” he explains. “With this play, musicality is an issue. It was a question of the sound of the lines as well as the meaning.”
While Zeller’s earlier works—including The Father, which earned Frank Langella a Tony Award, and The Mother, seen Off-Broadway starring Isabelle Hupert—were in many ways more naturalistic, Height of the Storm finds an elderly couple, played by Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce, engaging with one another, their daughters, and a mysterious visitor in ever-shifting realities. Mushrooms are peeled, meals are prepared, and goodbyes are spoken—but there is never any certainty about the permanence of what we’re seeing. Or even of whom we’re seeing.
And yet under Jonathan Kent’s direction, the cast (which also includes Lucy Cohu, Amanda Drew, James Hillier, and Lisa O’Hare) make the abrupt shifts in address and narrative effortless to follow, even as the audience sits up to better track just what is going on in this ramshackle kitchen.
This process of mounting the play was a tad easier than some of Hampton’s translations, since the production arrives in New York with its central British cast intact. “Normally I do this process whereby when a play is done in New York I come and work with the actors and director to Americanize the language,” he says. “It’s surprising how helpful it is to come and do that exercise if you’re moving from English actors to American actors.”
Perhaps the biggest change for the show was the most obvious: the title. Originally titled “Avant de s’envolver” in French, in English it became the less musical and evocative “Before Flying Away.”
“We had an enormously long debate about the title,” Hampton says. “Before Flying Away” comes from a René Char poem recited near the end of the play, “and we sat and thought about it together and finally I said, ‘Why don’t we take a phrase from the first line of the poem?’” Hampton says. And so Broadway gets two legendary performers, a powerhouse writing duo, and The Height of the Storm.