Matt Wolf, a theater critic who interviews Damian Lewis at Times Talks London in May 2014, spends quite some time talking to Damian about each and every play he has done to date at length, well, except for one: When it comes to Five Gold Rings, Wolf mentions it briefly and as more of a personal highlight than a professional one for Damian!
Matt Wolf: “One production at The Almeida called Five Gold Rings was perhaps not that successful except that it has the woman whom you ended up marrying so I would assume it was a success in that way.”
Damian laughs: “Yeah.”
Sweet! And it goes without saying that today’s walk in memory lane will be as much about Five Gold Rings as about When Damian Met Helen 😀
Damian tells the story of how he persuaded Helen to do The Five Gold Rings in an interview with The Telegraph:
“At the time I was sitting – in LA actually. Reading a lot of uninspiring words and I was sent this script for this play. I thought it was rather brilliant, muscular and poetic. I said to the producer there is only one person who should play the female lead and that’s Helen McCrory. I didn’t know her, but I called her up and tried to persuade her to do it. I remember her saying, “It’s very unusual hearing from you”, and I just kept saying, ‘You must play this role, you must play this role.’
“She called me back when she’d read the script and said, ‘Don’t you think this might be better on the radio?’ And again I kept saying, ‘No, no, it’s wonderful, it’s muscular, it’s exciting, we’ll have a great time doing it.’ So eventually she said yes – and it was universally slammed by every critic. Helen always says that it’s the worst reviewed production that she has ever been in, and she blames me entirely.”
The following remark Helen makes about the play in a Daily Mail interview makes one gasp and set the expectations quite low at the outset…
“We almost closed the Almeida with a production called Five Gold Rings. I think my mother is the only person who really liked it.
But it does not stop me from doing research, and guess what, the reviews were not that bad! You know everything is relative. It may be that the play did not bring Helen the kind of rave reviews she is always used to receiving. However, given that Five Gold Rings was a new production by a young playwright that carried risk in its experimental ways that you will see critics talk about below, the reviews were not bad. As much as the critics believed that the play did not always work, they still raved about its originality and boldness as well as the top notch cast delivering it right on stage.
So what is Five Gold Rings about?
Confession: As a die-hard Olympics fan, I first thought Five Gold Rings was about the Olympics! And, of course it is not! The five rings actually represent the five married people in the play.
Henry (David Calder), an older guy whose wife deserted him, lives in a desert somewhere. His two sons Simon (Will Keen whom I loved as Thomas Cranmer in Wolf Hall) and Daniel (Damian Lewis), who live in the city, visit him on Christmas with their wives. Both sons have struggling marriages. Simon had a vasectomy to make sure he would not have kids while his wife Miranda (Helen McCrory) is dying to have a child. Daniel (Damian Lewis), who is married to Fyerja (Indira Varma, Game of Thrones, anyone?) claims he is impotent. The impotency seems to be an excuse for Daniel not to sleep with his wife because he is getting attracted to his sister-in-law during the course of the play. They plan to flee together, which may, in fact, solve his problem of “impotency” and her problem of being “childless.” The story that starts as an unhappy family reunion unfolds over the next two and a half hours to reveal even unhappier family secrets including revenge, rape, and incest.
The Variety review, by Matt Wolf, the very theater critic who interviews Damian at Time Talks London, is, in fact, stellar!
“Five Gold Rings is that rare contemporary play to demand from its actors a finesse for language, which makes one that much more grateful to find a company skilled at elocution while also absolutely modern in style and stance. As directed quite vibrantly by Attenborough, the play is rarely the arch experimental exercise that it surely would be in lesser hands. All five actors bring their work in the classical canon to bear on Laurens’ deliberately distorted verse, and one only wishes that the ever-elegant Varma — returning to the Almeida for the first time since the preem of Harold Pinter’s “Celebration” — had more to do.
The rest strip themselves bare emotionally (and, in Keen’s case, literally) in a mighty effort to give flesh to a pretty high-flown endeavor. Playing the “old and foolish” Henry (that sounds like Lear to me), an impoverished patriarch who has been relegated for some unknown reason to the desert, Calder gives wounding, abject weight to some fanciful writing, as does a particularly sleek, feline McCrory, playing her father-in-law’s usurper of sorts. And taking a break from a TV career, “Band of Brothers” star (and Almeida alum) Lewis brings a ravaged intensity to the scheming younger brother, Daniel. Spitting the second-act bile some will bring to the play as a whole, Lewis is one of the reasons “Five Gold Rings” keeps you glued to the end.”
The “second-act bile” Wolf refers to should be in the scene Curtain Up critic Lizzy Loveridge is praising Damian for:
“Damian Lewis’ final memorable scene when he relates his experience of child abuse is heart breaking as he twitches in distress. The bare bones set starts as a broad swathe of orange lighting but changes to a blue night sky, conveying the openness, the exposure of these people in the emotional as well as physical desert that is their family. The Monopoly game has been left unfinished since the last visit, a hanging image.”
Are they wearing Christmas Crackers hats? I bet they are!
The Independent that provides the harshest criticism of the play I have found online admires Damian’s performance as well:
“The unfortunate actors in Michael Attenborough’s production have my sympathy, but Damian Lewis, who was so good as the tortured Soames Forsyte on TV, has my admiration as well. Against the odds, he manages to make the character of Daniel, as absurd as the rest, into a believably dignified and tormented figure.”
The criticism seems to be more about the constant use of wordplay in the play than anything else. Michael Billington of The Guardian argues the language Laurens uses in the play works sporadically. But he still highlights the fact that the playwright has a distinctive voice and the actors on stage respond very well to the play’s demanding language:
“Laurens attempts to give the story a mythic dimension by using heightened diction that employs cascading images, inverted word order and endless puns. Sometimes the result is faintly absurd – as if Christopher Fry had gone into partnership with Stanley Unwin. But, once the ear becomes attuned, you find Laurens creates a consistent, playfully inventive idiom. When Miranda suggests to Daniel that they could escape by car, he replies, “I’d drive you wild.” Her later rejection of him is nicely caught in, “You are in me, spent lead shot, and I’m not wanting you no more.
Though Laurens’s play is based on such far-fetched assumptions as the idea that a one-night stand leads to instant pregnancy, it does create a strange nightmare world. It is the most interesting work of the new Almeida regime, and Michael Attenborough’s production, staged on Es Devlin’s tilted disc, exists at exactly the right tangent to reality. David Calder as the quasi-Biblical patriarch, Damian Lewis and Will Keen as his warring sons and Helen McCrory and Indira Varma as his sexually dissatisfied daughters-in-law, also savour Laurens’s demanding language.”
I understand the criticism about the excess of wordplay; however, as someone who loves wordplay, I find the wordplay in the following couple of lines delivered by Damian’s character Daniel quite fun:
Remember Daniel is a man believed to be impotent and while he does not love his wife, he is now falling in love with his sister-in-law.
Daniel about his wife Freyja: “There is nothing wrong with me but lack of love for her but lack of lust for her . . . I lie to her. But not on her.”
Daniel to his wife, Freyja: “There’s no point in you lying like a wishbone, always lowering the looped horns of youandus uterus at me; legs open for a man as soft as cheese!”
Daniel about his sister-in-law Miranda with whom he is falling in love with: “is like to be without skin, to be without the person you love.”
And it seems, while Damian’s character Daniel is falling in love with Helen’s character Miranda, Damian himself is falling in love with Helen. Michael Attenborough, who directed the play, comments on his two leads’ on-stage chemistry:
“I could have warmed my hands on it! It was like directing a fire. They were playing two characters who shouldn’t be falling in love with each other – he was falling in love with his brother’s wife. And Damian and Helen were incredibly sexy together.”
The bottomline about Five Gold Rings comes from Damian’s recent interview with The Evening Standard, which by the way, is the BEST interview with him that I have read in ages. The fact that the interviewer, Charlotte Edwardes has known Damian since they were in their early twenties may be what makes their conversation lively, real and playful. Read it!
“I persuaded her (Helen) to do a play which was not well-reviewed and she said: “Those were the worst reviews I’ve ever had and I blame you for making me do the play.’’’
But at least he got to snog her?
And Helen shares about their beginnings with Radio Times:
“He just made me laugh a lot. And still does.”
This picture from play’s rehearsals speaks a thousand words for the two of them!
Still, their romance was a slow burning one! Damian had a playboy reputation (I am sort of glad I did not know of him back then — I like family men!) while Helen did not want anything but a committed relationship (Way to go, Helen!)
This should be one of the first, if not the first, picture in the media of the two of them as a couple. It seems they wanted to take their time to make their relationship public, probably the best strategy to get to know each other without that undesirable spotlight on you!
Damian shares with the Daily Mail:
“I had to work hard. And in this circumstance, every man in the world knows what working hard means.”
Well done! And we sincerely hope that your dream of playing Benedick to Helen’s Beatrice or Antony to Helen’s Cleopatra on stage come true sooner than later!
In closing, I believe Five Gold Rings is the most important play Damian has done to date because, even though it did not bring him critical acclaim, it brought him the woman he wanted to share the rest of his life with! That is why we placed Five Gold Rings playbill cover front and center in the poster we gave to Damian backstage after his wonderful performance in The Goat. And I vividly remember the little exchange Damian and I had about it.
Damianista: “…and we placed Five Gold Rings in the middle because it is the most important one.”
Damian grins: “It is.”