David Hare is one of the leading contemporary British playwrights spanning five decades. With The Breath of Life he departs from his usual examination of political systems, the church, the law and the press, to focus down on two women in their sixties, their motivations and morality. I saw the 2002 premiere in the cavernous Theatre Royal, Haymarket with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Waiheke Theatre Companies production has the advantage of intimacy, allowing us to get up close to the internal action of the characters.
Madeline (Lucinda Peterken), an academic researching provenance of Islamic art, lives on The Isle of Wight, a cheap haven for the elderly. Frances (Linda Savage) a successful novelist and mother has travelled by ferry to meet her husband’s mistress of many years. Martin has deserted them both and moved with his predictably much younger model to Seattle and Frances is on a mission to find out Madeline’s part in their story with a notion of writing a memoir. Linda Savage presents a timorous birdlike character, initially rooted to the spot with terror in the face of the seemingly relaxed and almost casual Madeline, who has the advantage, or at least thinks she does, in knowing all about her rival. Swords are drawn and the battle commences. In the process, we learn enough about Martin to label him as a shit, but it’s the women’s secrets and fears which when revealed, hold our interest. Madeline insists that she never wanted to be defined by the man in her life, but you can tell from the performance that there are unacknowledged regrets. Some of the most interesting questions require and get no answer. I also get the feeling that Hare doesn’t always know the answers but along with Director, Teresa Sokolich, the actors have filled in the gaps with a thorough grasp of the characters and the clues within the text. Lucinda Peterken might not at first fit the stereotype of ‘mistress’ but as the play progresses it’s clear that she is perfect for the role – independent, sassy and intelligent – you can see what attracted Martin. Linda Savage by contrast gains courage for her character by dressing smartly and over doing the jewellery to demonstrate her success as a writer. She grows quietly throughout the play until she has discovered all. Act two ramps up the tension and Madeline’s passions are unleashed in a powerful scene set in the middle of a sleepless night. By morning, all seems to be resolved, but there’s one more thing to complete the jigsaw. It’s a treat to see two of Waiheke’s senior theatre practitioners playing on stage together.