Men on the verge of a breakdown: Inside one of Florian Zeller's tormented minds

Angel Coulby and Paul McGann in rehearsal for The Forest at Hampstead Theatre

Angel Coulby and Paul McGann in rehearsal for The Forest at Hampstead Theatre - Credit: Marc Brenner

He was one half of a memorable double act in Withnail and I – now, in a very different duo, Paul McGann is one of two actors playing the same tormented man in Florian Zeller's nightmarish new play.

The French hitmaker's plays have been described as unsettling and disorienting, with a habit of wrong-footing audiences and making them question what they've just seen. He turned The Father, his play about dementia, into a film which won Anthony Hopkins an Oscar, and is completing a screen version of The Son, starring Hugh Jackman and Laura Dern.

So it's a coup for Hampstead Theatre to stage the world premiere of The Forest, in which the titular wood turns out to be metaphorical – the midlife crisis of successful surgeon Pierre, whose life unravels after an affair.

"There are differing realities within this piece. It's a challenge," agrees McGann, who alongside Toby Stephens plays out Pierre's anxiety, lies and guilt, enacting subtly different variations of the same scene with their wife (Gina McKee).

Like The Mother, which dealt with obsessive love, and The Son with a depressed child, The Forest draws on familial bonds and a mind under extreme strain. Channelling the spirit of his hero David Lynch, Zeller often uses fragmentary, non linear, blurred timelines to suggest mental anguish.

"Sometimes you go and watch a play and think 'this is an experience'," says Angel Coulby, who plays Pierre's mistress. 

"This is definitely experiential. Each section has it's own back story and reality. It's almost lots of plays within one. The challenge is working out what's happening right now."

Gina McKee in rehearsal for The Forest at Hampstead Theatre

Gina McKee in rehearsal for The Forest at Hampstead Theatre - Credit: Marc Brenner

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She thinks the surreal element is a physical manifestation of Pierre's dual, compartmentalised life breaking down.

"That kind of wrong footing is a metaphor for the messiness of life. If this a breakdown, Florian is interested in trying to make you feel in it, to feel the character's confusion as Pierre loses his bearings."

McGann agrees the "whole energy" of Zeller's plays is audience immersion.

"I know from watching The Father, as an audience member you are following the story, wrapped in it, making your mind up about things. It's important the audience throw themselves in. It's subjective storytelling, we see Pierre's breakdown at different stages, it sometimes repeats or appears not to be there. Part of the dynamic is about him trying to do the next thing well. When he tries to address his problems we don't know if he's dreaming the solution. The audience has to accept that different versions of Pierre come home to the wife in the same clothes in the same room, and as far as any truth goes they are free to make up their minds about what's true, what's not and whose truth is it?"

Toby Stephens and Finbar Lynch in rehearsal for The Forest

Toby Stephens and Finbar Lynch in rehearsal for The Forest - Credit: Marc Brenner

It's directed by Jonathan Kent who previously directed Zeller's The Height of The Storm, and regular translator Christopher Hampton, has captured the subtleties of a play in which characters lie about their feelings.

Coulby, who grew up in Finsbury Park and whose TV work includes The Tunnel, and Merlin, feels the spectacle of an eminent man whose life is out of control, has a feminist edge.

"This is no glowing review of men. He's mostly not facing up to anything and his decisions are all about saving his own skin. The women all stay relatively constant in their agenda, the men shift reality, which I think is a comment on masculinity as opposed to how (Zeller) may view women."

For McGann it's not just about seeing how this "clever fellow who makes speeches to government" is corrupted by his own failures and the competing forces in his life.

"For me what makes the play so poignant is it's about the love that women pour into this man and what if anything they get back."

The Forest runs at Hampstead Theatre until March 12

The Forest runs at Hampstead Theatre until March 12 - Credit: Shaun Webb Design

The Forest runs at Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue until March 12. Get tickets via www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2022/the-forest