Robert Icke’s production of David Hare’s The Red Barn is likely to be the production of 2016 most memorable because of the sheer beauty of the staging. Bunny Christie is in full filmic flight and the vistas in which the characters live and die, including a remarkable snowstorm, are intensely, minutely revealed. But as a theatrical experience, The Red Barn is clinical and unengaging; an autopsy rather than a psychological thriller.
In recent weeks, rising star director Robert Icke has proclaimed that he finds most modern theatre productions boring and that he understands why people leave the theatre at interval. With the opening of his production of The Red Barn, David Hare’s adaptation of Georges Simenon’s La Main, now playing at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre, Icke advances two solutions to his perception of audience unrest.
The first, and most effective, is to have an uninterrupted running time of about 110 minutes. No interval, no fleeing.
The second involves a quite focussed and fundamentally obsessive attempt to re-create a filmic experience on stage. All of Icke’s considerable energies go into making the experience of watching The Red Barn akin to watching an erotic thriller in a trendy art house cinema. Scene changes occur utilising a closing/opening frame technique, suggestive of different lenses being opened and closed, different observational points of view being experienced.
The settings all seem real – you feel the bitter cold of the snow, the flickering hot breath of the wood fire, the elevator looks like it would really take you away to some other place. The colour schemes reflect the personalities of those who live in the spaces.
Designer Bunny Christie has achieved something remarkable and impressive here. The wild snowstorm is a particular triumph. But it’s not just the look and feel of the various sets – it’s also that, pretty much, every time a setting is revealed it is in a slightly different place, suggesting a different point of observation while re-informing the notion that the central character, Mr Dodd, at least, has many eyes watching him.
Concepts of eyes, sight and watchfulness are peppered throughout and are introduced right at the start when Mrs Dodd has a checkup for glaucoma. People see things that others try to hide and things which some don’t know can be seen. Christie’s set, impeccably elegant and briskly evocative of early 60s elite America, gives corporeal life to these ocular considerations.
The luminous skills of Paule Constable contribute significantly to the atmosphere that pervades The Red Barn. Shaving and diffusing light, Constable creates an expectant gloom, a chilling urbanity, a febrile sterility which reflects, augments and exacerbates the emotional and physical journeys of the characters.
You can both see and not see what happens in the snow storm; light floods the party scene where much happens out of sight and there is creeping dusky twilight in the wind-ravaged home while the storm rages outside. This is gloriously effective lighting; if there is better lighting on any stage in London, bottle it as it may well be magic.
David Hare’s dialogue is faithful to Simenon’s style, spare, delicate and simmering. The characters have excellent raw material with which to work, although the thriller aspect is thin. Ideas and plot points that can work very effectively in a novel do not necessarily translate well to the stage; the mind can race ahead, create atmospheric scenarios based upon the written word. In the theatre, mostly anyway, the atmosphere, the tension, the sense of the work is presented to you.
The sense that Icke strives for here is intense slow burn, and he achieves it. Film noir at a snail’s pace; very understated, very stylish, very detached. The trouble is that the glacial pace and buttoned up characterisations favoured here by Icke – particularly of the central trio – keep the audience coolly uninvolved. These are not characters to whom one warms. The overall approach adopted by Icke would probably translate very effectively to the screen, but absent the choreography of cinema, close-ups and camera techniques that can heighten suspense and interest, on stage the overall notion fails to generate excitement sufficient to hold attention.
The plot is simple, really, and turns on sexual obsession. A quartet of people are caught in a snowstorm. One gets lost; the others take refuge in a house. Tensions rise. An affair results. It ends. The ending has fatal consequences. There are no big twists or sudden shocks – everything is slowly, surely, revealed.
Hare’s play begins with Mrs Dodd’s checkup for glaucoma. It’s short and odd – but it leaves a mark. Why did we see that scene? That question haunts proceedings until the penny drops (quite early on given the heavy-handed emphasis on Mr Dodds constantly being under surveillance) and then the final tableau seems predictably inevitable.
Icke says he doesn’t believe in actors using skills to project their voice, preferring to use amplification to get dialogue out into the auditorium. Even with state-of-the-art amplification here, though, much of the dialogue is very hard to hear. Passions may lurk under the surface, but they don’t have much reflection in vocal work. Daggers are thrown in softly-spoken phrases, emotions seep out through clenched jaws and tightly pursed lips.
This is not to say that the acting is under par, mostly anyway. Mark Strong is remarkably impressive as the wrought Mr Dodd, a character with nothing in common to his award winning turn in A View From The Bridge. You can scarcely credit that this is the same actor.
Strong gets the period feel of the character precisely right in language, bearing and deportment. His Dodd feels like a 1960s small town American professional. He also sounds exactly right – detached, urbane and splintering. His handling of the dialogue is masterful: despite the leaden pace, he does all he can to make the language lyrical and arresting. He succeeds as well as anyone could given the constraints imposed by Icke.
Hope Davis is a triumph as the totally emotionally shut down Mrs Dodd. She is a languid Sphinx of the controlling maternal kind. Davis paints a complete picture of this haunted woman, whose life is lived in hermetically sealed compartments and whose every step is calculated and considered. She is the perfect foil to Strong’s Dodd – or perhaps he is the perfect foil for her. Either way, the partnership is compelling.
As the enigmatic and ethereal beauty, Mona Sanders, Elizabeth Debicki fits the bill: she is suitably tall, elegant and seductive. She looks right but that is all. Her manner of performance is too close to Hope Davis’ to provide a truly believable alternative for Dodds’ affection. Debicki gives a screen performance on one of the largest and most exposing stages in London. It may be precisely what Icke requested, but it just doesn’t work.
There is good work from Stuart Milligan as an Optician with tax issues and especially good work from Michael Elwyn who plays the Newspaper Editor father to Hope Davis. Oliver Alvin-Wilson brings an edgy suspicion to Lieutenant Olsen, the lawman who comes to investigate the circumstances that led to Ray Sanders being lost in the snowstorm.
The Red Barn might be a modern thriller, with a focus on psychological exploration of fear, passion and control, but Icke’s production, steeped in film techniques and a sloth-like sense of pace, does not let it soar. Thanks to Christie, it is a visual feast. Despite the fine work from Strong and Davis, Icke’s production fails to hit the marks it really should.