The Red Barn is David Hare’s new play based on Georges Simenon’s novel La Main, a story of crime, jealousy and desire. We are in Connecticut in 1969, and a snow storm is raging outside. Two couples are returning from a house party, but only three of them make it back. To find his old friend Ray (Nigel Whitmey), Donald Dodd (Mark Strong) leaves the house quite reluctantly, only to return two hours later, alone. From this simple event starts Hare’s play which is one part whodunnit, one part a tale of frustration and incompleteness. Laced with sexual tension and release, we follow Donald as he struggles with desires and comfort, the need for something more and the need to settle for less. He is presented with two lifestyles in the arms of two different women, with both paths coming with their own joys and tribulations.
It is a story we have heard many times before, and the play itself does sink into a certain lull. At moments like these Robert Icke guides our attention like an unseen magician: black screens slide in front of the stage creating a zooming effect, forcing us to direct our gaze to wherever the focus is. It is an aesthetically thrilling and rewarding experience. It makes the entire production cinematic, a choice that perhaps tries to make the play a bit more interesting. While this device is far more than a gimmick, it does raise the question as to why this particular production receives this treatment.
Live theatre allows us to look at whatever we choose to look at. The eye can wander freely, which exposes the actors and demands them to always be present, no matter where they are on stage or what they are doing. By creating this screen effect, not only is this freedom of seeing taken away, it also creates a certain alienation, a separation between the audience and the action on stage. We are back to the concept of perspective scenery, where only the best seats in the house will get the satisfaction of seeing Donald’s face in the final moment of the play as the screens slide together. Because of this form there is a feeling of detachment, coolness: and similarly the cast seems to operate on a surface level. Elizabeth Debicki plays a lifeless Mona: she is mysterious, but perhaps too disconnected at certain points. Hope Davis is similarly calm and stern, but this matches her demanding, almost inhuman character. The fire and liveliness only truly comes from Mark Strong, a true chameleon of an actor, who at one point builds tension, vivid imagery and catharsis in an unexpectedly ferocious monologue from just sitting on a sofa. This is the kind of contained drama, this regulated energy that is needed in this play: quiet, but not lifeless. Subtle, but not invisible. Once again, Strong brings a tragic character to stage with an incredible attention to detail, a deep understanding of inner turmoil and a complex portrayal.
Bunny Christie’s set is, as always, mouth-watering: her worlds are elegantly and precisely constructed, adding to the filmic feel of the production. Paule Constable’s lights and Tom Gibbons’ sound design successfully support this cinematic story, yet small details are frustrating, like the front door that sometimes would open with snow flying into the house, and sometimes with no sound effect whatsoever in the exact same scene.
Icke once again makes theatre in his own way: his focusing lense open and closes, highlighting the bits he wants us to see. I just wish he was just as invested in the rest of the story, where quiet stillness comes dangerously close to flat indifference.
The Red Barn is playing at the National Theatre until January 17 2017.
Photo: Manuel Harlan