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LONDON — Skylight was first staged in 1995 at London’s National Theatre and then transferred to the West End and Broadway. Back then, David Hare’s two-and-a-half-hander struck a timely nerve in Britain with its juxtaposition of entrepreneurial swagger and socially-conscious altruism, personified in two lead characters first played by Michael Gambon and Lia Williams. The ideological stakes were still hot when Bill Nighy took over the male lead in 1997, around the time Labour won the General Election. Now that Nighy is reprising the role opposite Carey Mulligan (An Education, The Great Gatsby), the play’s themes feel no less relevant in director Stephen Daldry’s very competent revival, even if the absence of internet or cell phones in their lives conspire to make the time setting seem more distant.
Set in the early 1990s over the course of one snowy night a couple of weeks before Christmas, the action is entirely confined to the shabby apartment in a ’60s brutalist tower block in Northwest London where high-school teacher Kyra Hollis (Mulligan) lives. (Bob Crowley’s imposing set with its forced perspective is a thing of beauty).
Visits first from 18-year-old Edward Sergeant (coltish and huggable Matthew Beard) and then later his successful restaurateur father Tom (Nighy) make it clear that things were once very different. Raised in upper-middle-class luxury in leafy Surrey, Kyra was formerly the right-hand woman in Tom’s catering empire as well as Edward’s sometime babysitter. Something happened to make her turn her back on breakfasts with real linen and silver coffee pots, something that compelled her to seek out, not quite a hair shirt, but a scratchy wool sweater of austerity and public service. As the night unfolds, all is revealed.
Although one wall of Kyra’s flat rolls away early to afford a better view of her bedroom, front door and the lit windows across the courtyard beyond, every effort has gone into the set dressing and stage business to ground the action in a very specific, realist environment — one immediately recognizable to a British audience.
The electric heater which emits no heat, the blue school exercise books she brings back to grade, and the hot-water boiler by the sink are all bang-on vintage. They say something about Kyra’s life and the choices she’s made. Even the way she prepares spaghetti bolognese (the auditorium fills with the smell of frying onions) is telling. Mulligan especially deserves full credit for the way she dances around the space like its true occupant, chopping and stirring and darting about all the time while keeping up the back and forth with Nighy’s Tom.
Likewise, the play flows fast like the booze imbibed by its characters. Both actors talk at a tremendously impressive clip, yet are both perfectly audible throughout. However, there are flaws — even if the production inspired spontaneous outbursts of applause for one speech from Mulligan in the middle and a standing ovation at the end on press night.
This is one of Hare’s more feted and better known plays, and although the dialogue zings and snaps and the drama huddles over what turns out to be two ex-lovers stirring the embers of their affair, when they get onto politics and social policy (notably in the aforementioned applauded speech) they sometimes sound like Brechtian sock puppets.
Moreover, the play’s intense concentration on them exposes the actors’ weak spots. Nighy can turn a phrase with comic timing like a master woodworker on a lathe, and he perfectly embodies the character’s eternal restlessness. But he has a fixed persona that always operates within an endearing but limited bandwidth (especially in films from Lawless Heart and Love, Actually to the recent About Time). When he has to enter deeper emotional terrain, as he does in Skylight, he thrashes. He’s also 26 years older than Mulligan, and although such a big age gap between the characters is still entirely plausible, it doesn’t help that she looks so much younger than the thirtysomething she’s meant to be, while he seems older than the late-middle-aged geezer the writing implies. Also, the actors have absolutely zero sexual chemistry.
Mulligan impresses more, especially since this is her first major stage appearance in a while. (She played Nina in The Seagull in London and on Broadway in 2007-08, and then the lead in Through a Glass Darkly Off-Broadway in 2011.) Her reactions when other characters are talking are vivid, alive and in the moment, whereas Nighy sometimes seems to just stand there, waiting for his turn. If she doesn’t quite dial up the anger enough after her shock cutlery-drawer hurtling in the first act, she gets to the right emotional pitch by the second in time for the big speech, complete with what looked like real tears — and there are no sliced onions around at that point to help.
If the short haircut, growing out from the crop she had in Gatsby, makes Mulligan look a little too gamine, she counterbalances it well. Fluttering gestures like constantly rubbing at her eyes make her seem like a more mature woman who’s just done a long shift at a sink-estate school.
The fact that education is such a political hot potato at the moment in the U.K. — admittedly over issues like academies, attendance and curriculum which were barely discussed in the early ’90s — will only help increase this production’s buzz factor, along with the fame of the leads. Bookings have been strong, and the reviews overwhelmingly positive so far.
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bill Nighy, Matthew Beard
Director: Stephen Daldry
Playwright: David Hare
Set designer: Bob Crowley
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Music: Paul Englishby
Presented by Robert Fox and Scott Rudin
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