Lyttelton, National Theatre
29th October, 2016, matinee
This is surprisingly the first David Hare play I’ve seen live. I saw the NT Live screening of Skylight but, as brilliant as it was, it doesn’t quite capture the same filmic pace of what I’ve read of his other work. From Plenty to his NT trilogy to Stuff Happens, Hare’s plays are full of striking images and settings as varied and delicious as the Savoy bar to the fields of France. I’ve always wanted to see how one of these fast-moving plays is staged and Robert Icke’s production, with the help of Bunny Christie’s gorgeous design, has notched up the stakes in making The Red Barn even more cinematic and tantalising than Hare’s scripts often demand. Slow motion, music underplaying scenes, a stunning snowstorm, a suggestive prologue followed by a typewriter typed ‘title card’, and the framing of parts of the stage to create a close-up effect all comes together to create an ingenious film noir aesthetic.
Adapted from the novel La Main by Georges Simenon (though as someone in my early twenties and not having read any of his novels I only have the recent Rowan Atkinson-led Maigret adaptation with which to compare), The Red Barn is on the surface – and it’s a play hugely interested in surfaces – a thriller. On the way home from a party, two couples, Donald and Ingrid Dodd and his best friend Ray and his partner Mona, are forced to make their way home through a snowstorm. However Ray doesn’t make it back to the Dodd’s clapboard house. Ray’s outcome leads to Donald’s thus far ordinary, middle-class, middle of the road life in rural Connecticut hurtling into something far more intense and ultimately spiralling out of control.
The Red Barn unapologetically takes us to a world which displays many of contemporary theatre’s bugbears: the struggles of the white middle-class man, a patriarchal concept of success, female nudity. Ray’s disappearance and death – offstage and subsidiary – paves the way for a psychological thriller underneath. Back in their home, Donald and Ingrid try to reassure Mona. Their home is chic and designer, their voices remain calm, Ingrid makes neatly cut sandwiches and brews coffee on the cosy fire. But this marriage seems too eerie: the family photo seems perfectly staged and distant, completely without love. If it wasn’t placed above the fire it would be devoid of warmth. She later suggests that Donald sleeps next to Mona for the night and that he even go to comfort her in Manhattan. They start an affair in New York, one it seems that Ingrid has instigated.
Here Donald is in a different, sexier world: Mona’s apartment is completely white, vast, airy and full of uber-contemporary furnishings. And Mona herself offers him a temporary retreat more exciting from his otherwise pedestrian life before rejecting him later in the play. Earlier, we jump back to the party to see the trigger event which causes Donald’s mind set on Ray to change: he walks through several rooms (revealed one at a time by sliding curtains) eventually walking in on Ray having sex with one of the other guests. For Donald, this represents all the success Ray has had – in terms of women, work and a leader-of-the-pack mentality – which Donald hasn’t. Instead, marrying Ingrid and staying in small town America has been a compromise of his potential talents, and he’s now angry at himself for losing control of his life. It may seem all very self-indulgent but it is so tantalisingly designed and well performed it is effective and enjoyable, if not always likeable.
However the play is more complex than Donald being a dick and wanting out of his marriage. Hare is just as interested in a social shift in America and Donald’s selfishness seems symptomatic of that. The red barn of the title represents a rural wholesomeness as American as apple pie or the sports trophy in Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a wholesomeness to which Donald perhaps initially aspires. Ingrid apparently only married him because she could live with him. She also despises the city seeing its fast nature as a ‘substitute for life’ whereas he begins to detest rural Connecticut and all its false notions of community which it holds dear. In his memoir The Blue Touch Paper (review here), Hare articulates a shift in late 20th century society from an interest in the collective growing more inward to an interest in the self. Going off on a tangent, I believe Hare has also spoken about being shocked when the world turned right in the seventies when it seemed to be turning left. We hear a conversation early on in the play between Donald and the doctor where the latter praises Nixon and chastises the hippy youth culture. Donald seems to like the young and what they stand for but maybe all that changes too when he walks in on Ray and realises his unhappiness. Perhaps what Simenon is implying (or Hare is crowbarring in?) is that Donald foreshadows a culture of selfishness that was soon commonplace.
Mark Strong seems odd casting for the downtrodden hero but he and Elizabeth Debicki give incredible performances as the two lovers. But it is Hope Davis as Ingrid who is the most beguiling. She’s controlled and tranquil, almost cold, and you feel she is holding back her passive power over Donald. She doesn’t even seem to be bothered by the snowstorm they have to fight their way through, instead simply getting on with it.
Some have suggested that the play is too obvious in its signposting of metaphors which I don’t fully agree with. When Ingrid fills the room with daffodils and asks Donald how they look is this just a heavy handed symbol for their unhappiness veiled by the façade of contentment or is it a deliberate move by Ingrid to rub it in to Donald that he’s stuck there? Furthermore, Donald telling Ray that they’re side by side in the snowstorm when Ray’s actually behind him nicely sets up parallels later on, and Ingrid’s concerns about glaucoma are deftly handled. It makes for a bit of a writerly prologue but one that fits the overall tone.
I could see this play again and again. It transports us to a world so stylish and clearly evoked it’s hard not to be affected by it. At the play’s climax, heart-pumping music by Tom Gibbons, a breath-taking visual effect and Donald’s life plummeting out of control (or perhaps he is taking control of his life here?) creates a first class coup-de-théâtre.
The Red Barn runs at the National Theatre, Lyttelton, until 17th January.
Elizabeth, Debicki, Mark Strong and Hope Davis. Credit: Manuel Harlan.