After what has seemed an interminable wait - 19 DAYS! - I have broken my 2017 theatrical duck. By the way Constant Reader, don't you think 2017 is a very ugly number? Hopefully that doesn't influence the next 50-odd weeks. I also hope THE RED BARN does not prove an omen for my theatre-going this year... oops, showed my hand there eh?
David Hare grew up reading the novels of George Simenon and found himself drawn to the writer's stand-alone psychological thrillers more than his Maigret crime novels and now he has adapted the little-known novel "La Main" (The Hand) for the National Theatre stage. I know what he means.. give me the stand-alone novels of Ruth Rendell of a seemingly normal person going wrong over the neatly-packaged Inspector Wexford books.
THE RED BARN is the National Theatre debut of director Robert Icke who is the new *hot* director at the Almeida and his production shows all the signs of a director being given all the opportunities the National Theatre can offer - video projections, elaborate scenery possibilities and lighting, special effects... The trouble is when these are what one remembers of the piece itself...
THE RED BARN is set in a Connecticut town in 1969, the seemingly unflappable community hides a jittery, nervous feeling of unwanted change in the country while on the verge of Richard Nixon's presidency. Two married couples - Donald and Ingrid Dodd, Ray and Mona Sanders - attend a dinner party which takes an embarrassing turn when Donald stumbles unseen upon Ray having sex with the host's wife. They all leave the party early due to a flash snowstorm but Ray vanishes when they all have to walk the last mile back to the Dodd's home.
Donald braves the storm again but returns after an hour without Ray and, so Mona will not be alone, Ingrid arranges that they all sleep on mattresses by the fire. Days later, the snow is cleared and Ray is found dead. However in the Dodd's nearby barn, the Police also discover a number of cigarette butts which lead to Donald confessing to be his - rather than hunt for Ray during the storm he sheltered in the barn for over an hour smoking.
His motives for this are possibly shown when, while visiting Mona in her Manhattan apartment to offer his professional help, they start a sexual relationship. However it's not long before Donald starts to slowly become engulfed by his emotions and secrets and when, Mona casually tells him that she is going to marry another man, he suspects that somehow Ingrid is behind it all...
It certainly sounds like a well-told tale; the plot feels very old-fashioned for such a prestige production which might explain the flashy look of Icke's production. The stars of the show are actually Bunny Christie's set design and Paule Constable's moody, atmospheric lighting - a massive shout-out too for the Lyttelton's tech crew who make the filmic quality of Icke's production work.
But - and it's a very big but - it feels like the one thing Icke is reticent to do is give us a thriller. Oh no... that's too obvious, too common - no this, is an existential, slow-moving story of the destruction of a dull man's psyche. The fact that the play features two deaths hardly registers in the frigid air atmosphere. It all felt like one of those independent films where acting is dialed down to a minimum, the score is usually 'ironic' use of pop songs and the cinematography tends to linger on 'artistic' static set-ups just a little too long.
The actors do not pull focus under this poe-faced concept (imagine Pinter meets Dennis Lehane): Mark Strong is obvious casting for Donald bearing in mind his last stage role was as the equally obsessed Eddie Carbone in VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE and with his unprepossessing brown wig and nerdy glasses he hardly seems equipped for the passion that allegedly grips him in his desire for his dead friend's wife. But Strong is playing him on such a low light that his despair rarely registers, apart from an overly dramatic STAGGER SLUMP as he leaves Mona for the last time.
Hope Davis as Donald's emotionally controlled wife Ingrid certainly gives her an icy exterior but again is played in such a colourless way that you cannot care for her. However she does make some impression, which is more than can be said for Elizabeth Debicki as the recently widowed Mona. Her banal performance leaves you utterly clueless as to why Donald would throw up his life to be with her - he would surely be equally at home with a showroom mannequin. I am sure she is supposed to be a blank canvas that Donald projects all his fantasies on but any interior life is totally missing from her phoned-in performance.
As I said the real star of the show is it's design; Bunny Christie has utilized black screens that move up and down, left and right to create a theatrical version of film pans and zooms which makes it enjoyable to watch - although this technique for making a show more filmic is not original - and has also designed the set to change in an instant: from the long and low cabin of the Dodds, to the Sanders' wide open and expansive Manhattan apartment.
Paule Constable's moody and atmospheric lighting is almost too much at times - in the final scene you are squinting at the stage to make out what is going on in the log cabin - but she does deliver, and Tom Gibbons' soundscape comes into it's own at the end, sounding louder and more discordant to signal to you that something shocking is about to happen.... and it does. If it had not been for this you would hardly be aware there was about to be a violent conclusion as Icke's production is played at such a glacial rate.
Something which only struck me later was how insidiously misogynistic it was - Donald is seemingly trapped between the primly efficient Ingrid (who looked astonishingly like Hilary Clinton at times from where I was sitting) and the icy beanpole Mona. The drama is all his and after the offstage afternoon sex scene between Mona and Donald it is of course Debicki who enters topless... why? What did that possibly add to the scene bearing in mind Strong was fully clothed. Added to the violence of the climactic act it really did make me wonder on whether this crossed Hare or Icke's mind at all.