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It’s one of the hottest tickets in London this fall: a new David Hare play, directed by Olivier Award winner Robert Icke, with a starry cast. But the very proposition of The Red Barn raises intriguing questions. Is the psychological thriller really the stuff of theater? How do you bring to life a novel whose hold on the reader is derived wholly from the perspective and troubled first-person narrative of a single protagonist? And how do you replicate on stage the monster of all blizzards?
With the exception of the blizzard, the answers are not particularly satisfying. Dazzlingly produced, yet dramatically ham-fisted, this is a perplexing production.
Hare has based his play, pretty faithfully, on La Main (The Hand), written in 1968 by Georges Simenon, but informed by the period the Belgian mystery author spent in Connecticut in the 1950s. The book is one of the prolific writer’s roman durs — those without his signature creation, Inspector Maigret, and which the author rightly considered his superior work. It’s a slow-boil, meticulous psychological thriller, leading almost innocuously toward a devastating ending; quite brilliantly, it’s predicated on a crime that exists only in someone’s mind, until guilt and a plethora of other self-defeating, mostly male emotions create the basis for a real one.
On the way home from a party, small-town Connecticut lawyer Donald Dodd (Mark Strong), his wife Ingrid (Hope Davis) and their houseguests Ray and Mona Sanders (Nigel Whitmey and Elizabeth Debicki) have to leave their car in a ferocious snowstorm and make their way on foot to the Dodd home. Ray doesn’t make it. Even before his body is found, and while the others are still snowed in, a bond forms between Donald and Mona.
Neither Simenon nor Hare is interested in the subsequent infidelity per se, but in the psychology behind it, namely Donald’s, ignited in the moment he decided to eschew a last-gasp search for Ray for safety and a cigarette in his barn. “I went in as one man, and came out another,” he will tell Mona. But while he sees this as a triumphant reversal of a life led “with the handbrake on,” and under the demanding scrutiny of his wife, it seems more like midlife crisis propelled by jealousy of his Madison Avenue friend and a genuine, pathological self-loathing.
Icke (1984, Oresteia) sets the scene in typically inventive fashion, with his set, sound and video designers working well in tandem. Lights out, the play opens with a crescendo of atonal sound (recalling the opening of There Will Be Blood); instead of the curtain rising, sliding panels across the front of the stage open to reveal the giant image of an eye staring out at us. In front of that, an optician stands over his patient.
Ingrid Dodd is told that her sight is “as good as it gets.” This would be the gaze that so bedevils her husband. The symbolism is over-the-top, but grabs our attention, before Icke takes us into the storm, his four actors buckling and shouting to be heard behind a transparent video screen, onto which is projected the blizzard they are trying to navigate.
It’s certainly impressive. The dynamism continues in the magical shifts between Bunny Christie’s set design of the New England house (a tasteful haven from the charcoal skies outside the windows) and the Sanders’ Manhattan apartment (a brilliant white, anemic show of affluence). Also in Icke’s continuing use of the sliding panels both to transition between scenes and focus our attentions within them — whether Donald’s first, telltale show of interest in Mona (specifically, on the hand of Simenon’s title), or his fateful discovery of Ray’s own infidelity, at the party, seen in flashback.
But this approach eventually becomes diverting, advertising the fact that the staging is doing too much of the play’s heavy lifting. A chief part of Hare’s task has to be to externalize Donald’s state of mind while giving the other characters their own color and reality; he fails in both. Ingrid and Mona remain largely unknowable, the actresses struggling to break free of their limiting dialogue. And Strong has to wait an hour before he can bring Donald to life, then having to condense months of self-shredding introspection into one forced, inadequate speech. It’s not surprising that his character’s segues between cardigan-wearing domesticity and Mad Men elegance fail to convince.
Innumerable moments of heavy-handedness range from the ineptly exaggerated insinuations of the policeman investigating Ray’s death (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) to Debicki’s seeming and understandable discomfort at having to disrobe (which seems like a desperate rekindling of the Nicole Kidman moment in Hare’s The Blue Room). When Ingrid declares, “You learn to respect the winter,” the door is promptly thrown open by the wind.
Incidentally, another of the roman durs, The Blue Room (no connection to Hare’s play) was very well adapted as a film in 2014 by the Frenchman Mathieu Amalric. Considering Icke’s very cinematic exertions, with their echoes of Hitchcock, it’s difficult not to feel that The Hand, along with all psychological thrillers, might be better served on screen.
As it is, the piece feels mannered, airless, denuded of mystery. Like Simenon, who wanted his lean and sprightly fiction to be read in a single sitting, Hare and Icke present the play without a break, at just under two hours. But it’s no page-turner.
Venue: National Theatre (Lyttelton), London
Cast: Mark Strong, Hope Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Nigel Whitmey, Anna Skellern, Oliver Alvin-Wilson, Jade Yourell, Michael Ewyn
Director: Robert Icke
Playwright: David Hare
Set & costume designer: Bunny Christie
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Sound designer: Tom Gibbons
Video and projection designer: Tim Reid
Presented by the National Theatre
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