Sam Wanamaker Playhouse | ★★★☆☆
What a piece of work the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is. In little over a year, it has become a priceless gem in London’s theatre crown. While the Globe deftly cycles through crowd-pleasing Shakespeare, the Playhouse breathes life into his relatively neglected contemporaries and successors, writers who often vocalise present day concerns in a way the Bard did not.
The Broken Heart isn’t the Wanamaker at its best, but it’s still very good. John Ford’s Spartan tragedy is one of the most soapishly convoluted of its era. There’s the tale of a sister forced into marriage with a tyrannous old husband, much to the ire of her promised lover. Then there are the trials of her brother, desiring a princess who is bound to marry a foreign prince. A sub-plot deals with a couple’s difficulties in winning familial approval, and over the whole hangs a gloomy sense of the approaching horrors that might lay Sparta low. These interconnected strands open up themes of self-denial, changeability and gender imbalance.
As Penthea, the unwilling bride, Amy Morgan strikes the right balance of devastated passivity and bubbling indignity at her unhappy fate. In a relatively small part, Joe Jameson’s Prince of Argos transforms scene-by-scene from Blackadder-worthy jollity to a leader scarred by the bloodbath around him. And Owen Teale, as Penthea’s cruel husband, continues to demonstrate his masterful delivery, able to switch from comic to cruel in a flash. The climax, which sees Sarah MacRae’s Calantha dance with a deranged energy as she receives some bad news, is a traumatic thrill.
But until that final hammer-blow, it can be difficult to connect emotively to the action. Ford’s stream of wit encourages us to sit at a distance. An overuse of the sunken pit area makes the characters seem all the more consciously theatrical. At times, the archness becomes a little Carry On Revenge Tragedy.
On balance, though, Caroline Steinbeis has crafted an entertaining and thoughtful production of a rich, complex play. It may seldom touch the heart, but it ensnares both gut and mind.