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Any play starring Donald Sutherland will generate interest, especially as he has not graced the boards for twenty years and it is thirty six years since he appeared in London's West End. So it was with a certain amount of expectation that I went to London's Savoy Theatre to see this fine film actor in Enigmatic Variations, a play translated from the French by Roeg Sutherland, the actor's son. With a shock of straight, white hair worn almost shoulder length and a full white beard, Sutherland still has a strong presence. He personifies relaxed self confidence as he lopes about the stage in a navy Fisherman's jacket but the play he's in is another matter.
Variations Enimatiques was written in 1996 by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, French born professor of philosophy and now playwright. The scenario is this: Abel Znorko (Sutherland) is a Nobel prize winning novelist who lives in isolation on a Norwegian island. The time is the autumn equinox, the twilight between six months of day which is ending and six months of darkness.
His latest book, his first on the subject of love, is about his love affair with a woman called Eva L'Amour. Znorko decided to stop seeing the woman and to communicate only by letter so that their affair can keep its perfection and can find a love beyond sexual passion. The correspondence lasted fifteen years. The twists in the plot are there but I won't tell you more than that I guessed them before they came and that both Elgar's "Enigma Variations" and Znorko's book are dedicated to someone by their initials but there the similarity ends.
The second character in the drama is is Eric Larsen, (John Rubinstein), who has been granted a rare interview and who brings news that will make Sutherland sit down with such force that he will break the coffee table on which he sits. There is some cerebral exploration of questions such as why ask a novelist to tell you the truth about himself when what he is good at is to make up stories. As Znorko puts it, "Literature doesn't invent life - it invents it larger, better." Their meeting takes place in a long room with a view of sand and sea, with a beautiful half size statue of a naked woman overlooking the scene, presumably Eva as Znorko remembers her.
Znorko's account of the details of his physical affair with Eva L'Amour doesn't convey the sense that we're listening to a great writer, unless of course what we hear is a poor translation of a great writer. While I suspect that this might be the problem with the piece, the result struck me as a very old fashioned type of play, one of those two handers where an old man is confronted by someone who forces him to reconsider some precept upon which he has built his life.
Sutherland does his best with a rather turgid script. There are a few jokes which bring welcome laughter. But too much of the time he's called upon to pontificate, with only the last ten minutes allowing us to see his emotional range. It is a long time to wait. Rubinstein as the unflappable Larsen, is essentially a rather dull man. He is neat, formal and correct whereas Znorko is acerbic, insulting and insensitive. The two performances are fine but the play's action dragged too much to either grip or convince me. From his playing of the Elgar piece, Larson no more persuaded me that he was a music teacher than Snorko conveyed his brilliance as a writer. The whole had the ring of a rather dated radio play.
Editor's Note: When Enimgatic Variations played in Los Angeles -- as Enigma Variations, different director and co-star -- our reviewer also found it slow going at first, but more rewarding in the overall. To check out his opinion go here.
Written by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
Translated by Roeg Sutherland
Directed by Anthony Page
With: Donald Sutherland and John Rubinstein
Set Design: Ming Choo Lee
Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel
Running time: Ninety minutes without an interval
The Savoy Theatre, Strand, London WC2 (Tube: Charing Cross)
Box Office: 020 7836 8888
Booking to 29th July 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 1st June 2000 performance at the The Savoy Theatre, London.