BWW Review: THE RED BARN, National Theatre, 17 October 2016

Mark Strong, Elizabeth Debicki
and Hope Davis

It was a dark and stormy night. Two couples are caught in a snowstorm on their way back from a party. Three of them arrive at a remote Connecticut farmhouse. One disappears. There's a definite pleasure in this familiar story, immaculately told in David Hare's adaptation of Georges Simenon's novel La Main. The noir thriller tropes are all in place, from femme fatales and gnawing jealousy to paranoia about what lies beneath.

Robert Icke's achingly stylish production opens with an eerie close-up of an eye. Ingrid is having an exam: she fears the onset of glaucoma, that silent thief of sight, "because you don't notice it happen". The production has a similar focus on creeping dangers, with Icke framing each scene so that information is just out of reach. We're often voyeuristically peering through doors or catching a glimpse of the joining of hands, a meaningful glance, a potential threat. But do we ever see people for what they really are?

Bunny Christie's ingenious design supplies Icke with distinctly filmic tools, her gliding and contracting screens giving him panning shots, zoom functions and fades to black. The pace is deliberately glacial, ratcheting up tension in Hitchcockian fashion, though on stage the frequent scene changes risk disengagement. There's a distancing, too, with such a ravishing period aesthetic. Each scene is so clinically framed and choreographed, it's almost more Vogue shoot than living theatre. Though the play is concerned with the difference between surface and reality, here the retro monochromatic surface sometimes rules.

Yet the excellent cast imbues the script with a potent charge, weighting each word deliberately. Mark Strong follows his unforgettable soul-bearing turn in A View from the Bridge with another magnetic portrait of a man teetering on the edge - and as with Mad Men, an elevator comes to symbolise that yawning abyss. Strong's mild-mannered, blandly named Donald Dodd has a solid job and solid family life, but the Sixties revolution has passed him by - unlike his missing friend Ray (a vivid Nigel Whitmey), who indulges all the voracious appetites that Donald so carefully represses. But might Ray's fun-loving nature mask suicidal tendencies?

Donald is drawn, inexorably, towards Ray's wife, an ex-actress who retains a sense of performance. Elizabeth Debicki's Mona is the projection of male fantasy, all sleek, silky robes, feline prowling, and a beguiling mix of elegant harlot and defenceless damsel. But she largely remains a sphinx-like step in Donald's journey to darkness, rather than a distinct person. So, too, is Hope Davis's fascinatingly ambiguous Ingrid - the chillingly perfect, omniscient WASP wife, whose talent for spousal manipulation may have a nefarious purpose.

Those who tire of Prestige TV's obsessive interest in the crisis of masculinity may find similar gripes here, with women very much defined by men: they're sexual objects, trophies, saviours, temptresses, fetishised victims of violence. Donald feels he has "lost in life" because he's trapped in marriage, possessed by rather than possessing women. What he has always termed goodness is dismissed by a swaggering, Nixon-supporting fellow partygoer as submissiveness - a toxic and all-too-prevalent understanding of masculine power.

Tom Gibbons's soundscape and Paule Constable's lighting contribute to an unnerving, atmospheric production, and stark moments linger: the dark shadows of the storm looming on the skylight, a door bursting open with a roar like a wild animal, the searching looks of Oliver Alvin-Wilson's astute lieutenant, the recurrence of whiskey and flowers, and a haunting final silhouette. But this unstoppable march to tragedy and shocking self-knowledge is a little too chilly to really grip, its tension slipping on occasion. You admire the show's bravura skill, but don't fully inhabit its drama.

The Red Barn at National Theatre until 17 January, 2017

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Read our interview with Hope Davis



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From This Author Marianka Swain

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