Review: The Red Barn, Lyttelton Theatre

“Here walk I in the black brow of night / To find you out”

King John, Act 5, Scene 6

William Shakespeare

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? blog-4Did 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. blog-6Ray 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 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/ 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. blog-5The 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

“He’s loved of the distracted multitude”

Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

If you too are a West-End addict, you can’t have helped noticing the wealth of five-star reviews that the new production of David Hare’s ‘Skylight’ at Wyndham’s Theatre has garnered. blogStarring film-stars Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, this production has it all; great staging, a fantastic cast and a brilliant script. Good news for those of you who can’t get tickets/can’t get to London; it’s being shown in cinemas worldwide on 17th July as part of National Theatre Live. I might even go see it again!

First, the low-down on the reasonably simple plot (although after Mr Burnsand basically any Shakespeare play, anything seems simple): Kyra (Mulligan), around thirty, is a teacher working and living in two different, but equally down-and-out areas of One freezing winter’s evening she is visited first by 18 year old Edward Sargeant, (played expertly by Matthew Beard)). Kyra lived earlier with the Sargeant family for several years, but left abruptly after Edward’s mother, Alice (ahahahaha she has my name!), discovered Tom (Edward’s father) and Kyra’s six year affair. Alice has since died of cancer, and Edward has come looking for answers; why did Kyra – who he viewed as a sister – just walk out on the family and never make contact again?

Later that evening, after Edward has left, and Kyra is settling in for a normal night of a hot bath, making dinner and marking homework, Tom himself turns up, out of the blue. As the evening progresses, the two attempt to rekindle their once passionate relationship only to find themselves locked in a dangerous battle of opposing ideologies and mutual desires.

It sounds heavy, but there’s a surprising amount of laughs actually. The tension between the two never becomes unbearable, yet it is still a powerful play; one that really makes you think. The element I found most surprising was how much I agreed with I had assumed before that she’d be incredibly and insufferably self-righteous. Now, I’m not saying the fact that she seemed to think she was morally superior to many others wasn’t irritating at time, but she did put forward some pretty major points about society and class differences and how to help the needy and modern self-pity. Ok, put like that it does sound rather sanctimonious, but trust me, something about the way Mulligan played it, and the way the script was written meant that I liked Kyra a whole lot more than I anticipated.

The casting was basically perfect to be honest. blogIn fact, my only criticism of the whole play was that I wanted more stage time for Edward; perhaps because Beard played him with such energy, and yet with such realism. Or perhaps because he was on a gap year and close to my age, so I related more to him. Anyway, who cares what the reason was, all I know is he was so good I wanted more!

I’ve already said how much I liked Mulligan’s understated performance, in particular her sudden powerful outbursts after many minutes of cool, controlled, collected calm. However, she was matched by Nighy in terms of performance. He leapt about the stage, gesturing here and gesturing there with this slightly odd two-fingered point, bellowing rage one moment, on the verge of tears the Really, I couldn’t fault it. I couldn’t fault any of the performances actually, I honestly can’t picture anyone else performing them in the same way.

The staging was really cleverly done; the whole story takes place in Kyra’s supposedly freezing, tiny, crappy Sometimes a play with no real scene changes can get, dare I say it, a little boring, and even overly claustrophobic for an audience. However, with moving walls, working taps and stove and the outside of the flat visible, Bob Crawley turned this limitation into an advantage. One really felt a part of Kyra’s life, and, whilst getting the smallness of the flat down to a tee, having the outside world visible for a lot of the play meant that it didn’t just seem like the characters were in their own little world where nothing had any effect on anyone else.

This play is famous for having the lead actress cook spaghetti bolognaise on stage as she is talking to Tom – just let me say this: eat before you go! The smell of the cooking onions and carrots and leeks and chili is absolutely gorgeous, and, again, shows how the play is rooted in reality. I know some critics and writers think that having ‘real’ things on stage – from real food to water to fire to animals to children to kissing – in some way emphasises the falsity of the other elements, and I see their point (let’s be honest, kissing in the theatre is rarely the highlight of the evening. Either it’s too long or too awkward or someone wolf-whistles… you get my drift) but in this production it really works.

As I hope you’ve picked up, this is a seriously good piece of theatre. blogLight-hearted enough to be an enjoyable evening out, but interesting enough to leave you contemplative afterwards. The only teeny tiny problem I heard of was from the women behind me; we were sitting right high up in the balcony and it seemed many slightly older people were finding it quite hard to hear everything. I think this is basically a stylistic choice; the actors want their performances as naturalistic and realistic as possible, but, that being said, if you are just booking now and would prefer not to listen pretty closely then book the lower seats! Or go to the NT Live showing of course.

Basically an amazing production of a great play. Go and see it while you can!

Skylight at Wyndham’s Theatre: 5/5 stars