“Here walk I in the black brow of night / To find you out”
King John, Act 5, Scene 6
The Red Barn is a triumph of cinematography on-stage. Bunny Christie’s set design is absurdly slick, and the National’s Lyttelton stage transforms from blizzard to country
house to New York apartment with unbelievable rapidity. It’s just a shame the story is so underwhelming.
Based on Georges Simenon’s novel, La Main, David Hare’s script is at first thrillingly pacey and mysterious. Two couples struggle against a New England snowstorm, clinging to each other for safety, when one of the men vanishes. What happened to him? Did he purposefully let go of his best friend’s hand? Was he deliberately left behind by said best friend? Can he possibly have survived mid-blizzard? The characters also initially appear intriguing. Mark Strong seems affable as Donald Dodd, whilst Hope Davis is eerily in-control as his wife Ingrid, and Elizabeth Debicki(of Night Manager fame)’s Mona Sanders seems numb with shock at her husband’s disappearance. The beginnings of an interesting, if not a great, thriller are there.
The rest of the play sadly fails to live up to this tension and promise, spiralling into the classic white man mid-life crisis drama. Ray Sanders’ disappearance is explained relatively quickly – don’t worry, no spoilers – and relatively boringly so we can get down to the real action: Donald’s dissatisfaction at his perfectly okay life.
Obviously people do feel frustration at having been the best in their class/year/college/state and ending up right back where they came from; at not making it in the big city because of fear. They’re scared that settling down is settling. These are all acceptable and real things. They are also things which I feel like I’ve seen on the stage, read about countless times before. Strong is as compelling as usual, but even he cannot make Donald’s plight that interesting.
Ingrid is by far the most intriguing character of the play. Davis’s perfectly made-up face is imperturbable. Determined to preserve her perfect small-town existence, Ingrid is dispassionately shrewd, apparently aware of everything, even before it happens. This disquieting perception, like the rest of the play, is at first exciting, and then lacks any real expansion. Davis deserves more stage time, and more character development. The other female protagonist, Mona, is similarly underwritten. Essentially playing a slightly less helpless version of her Night Manager ‘damsel-in-distress’, Debicki is impossibly elegant even when tearfully mourning her vanished husband. I should be upfront about this – I find this type of female character indescribably irritating. The type which floats around seducing men by an inexplicable combination of reclining on various white sofas looking sophisticated and modelesque, and suddenly crumbling in a tragic show of fragility and vulnerability. Well, perhaps not that inexplicable… Debicki plays this as well as she did in the Night Manager, but the character herself just seems like someone no woman would ever write, because she’s so boringly reductive. Strong’s character is the only one who seems vaguely developed – we at least get to meet his father (played with grumpy catankerousness by Michael Elwyn). But are middle-aged men really that immature? What sets Donald off on his mid-life crisis? Not his career, not his kids, not his family, not politics, not news. Nope, he’s jealous of how much sex his best friend gets. Wow. Such character depth, Hare.
What makes the production worth seeing is the set. Pitch black panels cover the front of the stage, sliding open into various rectangles or squares of light, to reveal beautifully chic houses and apartments behind. Props (haha) to the stage crew for the impossibly quick transitions between Mona’s icily glamourous expansive apartment, enacted flashbacks to the night of the party, and the Dodd’s immaculate New England chalet/cabin. Given that Simenon’s novel is written in the first person, the black panels cleverly allow this sense of subjectivity to become clearer, closing in oppressively as Donald feels increasingly trapped in his life. In fact, the only excuse I can make for the underdeveloped characters is that the whole production takes place through Donald’s eyes. Drama is, however, an objective medium, and it’s so tough to get rid of this audience preconception. People, Places, and Things and 1984 have achieved it (the latter also directed, and written, by Robert Icke, the director of The Red Barn). I think it’s great that theatre in general, this production included, is experimenting with how to subvert expectations – I just don’t think The Red Barn makes this intention clear enough.What the set design is trying to achieve is fantastic, but whether it does so is dubious.
The key word for this production is stylish. Rarely have I seen such a glamorous production. The actors make the most of what they are given, the opening is gripping, and the finale is thrillingly tense, although not unexpected. What Icke and Hare are trying to achieve, dramatizing a subjective viewpoint, is exciting. Sadly, I just don’t feel like script, design, direction all meshed together to successfully show this. It’s also worth mentioning that, whilst the set is amazing, its gimmick feels almost too cinematographic at times. There is only ever one piece of action going on at once. Your gaze is directed only to one piece of dialogue, one piece of drama. When a character finishes their piece, they leave. What The Red Barn suggests is that, rather than trying to employ cinematic or bookish techniques, the theatricality of stage performance must be exploited to create really successful on-stage subjectivity.
The Red Barn at the National Theatre: 2/5 stars