National Theatre | London
directed by Robert Icke
Big names mean big excitement. Given the former you long for the latter in David Hare’s stage adaptation of Georges Simenon’s novel La Main, presented here as The Red Barn and directed by Robert Icke. How could you not – Hare is a living legend, one of our social champions, and Icke was the director du jour with 1984 and Oresteia. Ears pricked at portentous dialogue, eyes peeled for visual cues and clues, you wait with bated breath to see where the story will lead. And then…it doesn’t. It’s a huge pity. Big names may bring in the crowds, but they don’t keep them there.
Connecticut, 1969. Two couples – Ingrid and Donald, Mona and Ray – make their way back from a party through a terrible snowstorm. Before they make it to the house, Ray disappears. Donald dutifully goes to find him. Two hours later he returns, without luck. Ray’s body is finally found. Donald changes. He begins an affair in the city with the widowed Mona. Mona eventually moves on. Donald returns to his wife, providing us with the only moment of the plot that could arguably be described as action.
As synopses go, it shouldn’t rise to the top of the slush pile. Somehow down the line here it has. And so the audience trudge on, in a blizzard themselves, grasping for dramatic sustenance. A few choice morsels keep up the strength over an interval-less two hours: Bunny Christie’s wonderful stage design, focusing in on scenes like a giant four-lidded eye; the gripping snowstorm created on stage with the help of Tom Reid’s projections; a soundtrack by Tom Gibbons that bubbles and oozes with promise and menace. And of course a cast of formidable talent. It should work.
Yet none of this can save the show from its exponential symptoms, symptoms that begin to suggest something decidedly terminal thirty minutes in. It is the story, the script, the glaring gaps in delivery that a snowplough could be driven through. Bearing in mind the starry names littering the program – Mark Strong, a rightful revelation in A View from the Bridge, Elizabeth Debicki, a glacial sensation in the BBC’s The Night Manager, Hope Davis, a Tony-nominee from the Broadway production of God of Carnage – the finger could linger on the original text. But then the original text never claimed to be more than a first-person novel. The fault lies elsewhere.
And so we follow Donald as he wrestles with whatever happened in those two hours in the snow, in the red barn of the title – and that is the only real mystery here. It is dramatic ground better covered by Pirandello in Non si sa come and Sartre in Crime Passionnel. Nugatory scenes with fathers and police lieutenants pass by without incident. We are left with dogged Donald, rousing from a world of mediocrity, an existence of driving with the handbrake on, re-evaluating the life he has chosen and the wife that chose him. “I’ve always been chaos-averse,’ Ingrid coolly explains to him, “and you’ve never been able to surprise me”. By the time the curtain falls we know how she feels.
It isn’t kind to be cruel in this industry. It needs all the support we can give. But this is precisely the kind of inaccessible, high-concept production that – seen by a certain type of person – could turn them off theatre for years. None of us need those empty seats – though it won’t be the theatres that can afford the big names in the first place who will suffer. The right to fail is as valid as ever, but to fail you must at first really try. Despite the very best efforts of the cast and the brilliance of its technical creatives, this production’s conceit comes across like an indolent shrug. It is a psychological thriller that does not thrill, while its psychology, of interest to be sure in 1968, feels so very old and white and male on a 21st century stage. If it’s a murder mystery you’re looking for, one that really delves the human heart rather than keep a restless audience hostage for a one-man navel-gazing spectacular, then Peter Shaffer and Michael Longhurst are doing it so much better just next door in the Olivier.
photo | ©Manuel Harlan