The Hungarian Sandor Marai’s novel Embers was an unlikely bestseller in 2002. Published for the first time in English sixty years after it was written, it is an elegiac discourse on friendship, love, honour and betrayal, but it seems a strange choice for Christopher Hampton to adapt for the stage as nothing actually happens in the novel and, as a result, the second half of the play is virtually a monologue.
At the outset we see ex-general Henrik (Jeremy Irons) waiting agitatedly in his Hungarian castle (grandly evoked in Peter J. Davison’s high-walled design) for the arrival of a close friend, Konrad (Patrick Malahide), whom he has not seen for 41 years.
Over the course of the evening we learn why they became estranged, and how the events of their youth cast a shadow over the rest of their lives.
It transpires that Konrad had suddenly resigned as an officer in the army and left Hungary for the Tropics in 1899 without explanation. Henrik believes that Konrad had been having an affair with his wife, and that Konrad had intended to shoot him on a hunting trip but changed his mind. After Konrad’s departure, Henrik and his wife did not speak to each other right up until she died 8 years later. Since then Henrik has been obsessively waiting to be face to face with Konrad once again.
The events of the past are revealed fairly early on – or at least Henrik’s version of them – as the focus is not on what actually happened but on why it happened. Was Konrad jealous of Henrik’s wealth and position, or did Henrik’s wife turn to Konrad because he showed her more genuine love than her husband?
The result is a subtle dissection of the psychology and motivation of male rivalry and comradeship, with the flaming passions of youth being recalled by two old men for whom the fire is almost out.
Hampton certainly captures the delicate ambiguities of Marai’s probing but this is very much a civilized conversation piece rather than a fully fledged drama: plenty of good talk with virtually no suspense.
There is a strong sense of the ending of an era, as these two survivors from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire talk in a part of Europe which is just about to be violently caught up in the fight between fascism and communism. It’s just that it would be nice to have more conflict on stage to liven up proceedings.
What helps to retain our interest is two very strong performances under the unobtrusive direction of Michael Blakemore. As Henrik, the bearded Irons (triumphantly returning to the West End after 18 years) has the straight back and formal bearing of an aristocratic soldier. He never loses his gracious manners even when condemning his friend for gross disloyalty but still shows the cancer of bitterness and regret that has eaten away his life all these years.
As Konrad, Malahide does remarkably well to suggest the deep world-weariness of a man who killed the vital spark in himself when young, especially after the interval when his role is basically to listen to Henrik’s long-suppressed accusations.
And Jean Boht manages to pack in a lifetime’s solicitude in her cameo role as the nonagenarian Nini, who was Henrik’s wet-nurse at the beginning of his life and is now his sole companion at the end.