“Here walk I in the black brow of night / To find you out”

King John, Act 5, Scene 6

William Shakespeare

The Red Barn is a triumph of cinematography on-stage. Bunny Christie’s set design is absurdly slick, and the National’s Lyttelton stage transforms from blizzard to country
house to New York apartment with unbelievable rapidity. It’s just a shame the story is so underwhelming.

Based on Georges Simenon’s novel, La Main, David Hare’s script is at first thrillingly pacey and mysterious. Two couples struggle against a New England snowstorm, clinging to each other for safety, when one of the men vanishes. What happened to him? blog-4Did he purposefully let go of his best friend’s hand? Was he deliberately left behind by said best friend? Can he possibly have survived mid-blizzard? The characters also initially appear intriguing. Mark Strong seems affable as Donald Dodd, whilst Hope Davis is eerily in-control as his wife Ingrid, and Elizabeth Debicki(of Night Manager fame)’s Mona Sanders seems numb with shock at her husband’s disappearance. The beginnings of an interesting, if not a great, thriller are there.

The rest of the play sadly fails to live up to this tension and promise, spiralling into the classic white man mid-life crisis drama. blog-6Ray Sanders’ disappearance is explained relatively quickly – don’t worry, no spoilers – and relatively boringly so we can get down to the real action: Donald’s dissatisfaction at his perfectly okay life.
Obviously people do feel frustration at having been the best in their class/year/college/state and ending up right back where they came from; at not making it in the big city because of fear. They’re scared that settling down is settling. These are all acceptable and real things. They are also things which I feel like I’ve seen on the stage, read about countless times before. Strong is as compelling as usual, but even he cannot make Donald’s plight that interesting.

Ingrid is by far the most intriguing character of the play. Davis’s perfectly made-up face is imperturbable. Determined to preserve her perfect small-town existence, Ingrid is dispassionately shrewd, apparently aware of everything, even before it happens. This disquieting perception, like the rest of the play, is at first exciting, and then lacks any real expansion. Davis deserves more stage time, and more character development. The other female protagonist, Mona, is similarly underwritten.blog-3 Essentially playing a slightly less helpless version of her Night Manager ‘damsel-in-distress’, Debicki is impossibly elegant even when tearfully mourning her vanished husband. I should be upfront about this – I find this type of female character indescribably irritating. The type which floats around seducing men by an inexplicable combination of reclining on various white sofas looking sophisticated and modelesque, and suddenly crumbling in a tragic show of fragility and vulnerability. Well, perhaps not that inexplicable… Debicki plays this as well as she did in the Night Manager, but the character herself just seems like someone no woman would ever write, because she’s so boringly reductive. Strong’s character is the only one who seems vaguely developed – we at least get to meet his father (played with grumpy catankerousness by Michael Elwyn). But are middle-aged men really that immature? What sets Donald off on his mid-life crisis? Not his career, not his kids, not his family, not politics, not news. Nope, he’s jealous of how much sex his best friend gets. Wow. Such character depth, Hare.

What makes the production worth seeing is the set. Pitch black panels cover the front of the stage, sliding open into various rectangles or squares of light, to reveal beautifully chic houses and apartments behind. Props (haha) to the stage crew for the impossibly quick transitions between Mona’s icily glamourous expansive apartment, enacted flashbacks to the night of the party, and the Dodd’s immaculate New England chalet/cabin.blog Given that Simenon’s novel is written in the first person, the black panels cleverly allow this sense of subjectivity to become clearer, closing in oppressively as Donald feels increasingly trapped in his life. In fact, the only excuse I can make for the underdeveloped characters is that the whole production takes place through Donald’s eyes. Drama is, however, an objective medium, and it’s so tough to get rid of this audience preconception. People, Places, and Things and 1984 have achieved it (the latter also directed, and written, by Robert Icke, the director of The Red Barn). I think it’s great that theatre in general, this production included, is experimenting with how to subvert expectations – I just don’t think The Red Barn makes this intention clear enough.What the set design is trying to achieve is fantastic, but whether it does so is dubious.

The key word for this production is stylish. Rarely have I seen such a glamorous production. blog-5The actors make the most of what they are given, the opening is gripping, and the finale is thrillingly tense, although not unexpected. What Icke and Hare are trying to achieve, dramatizing a subjective viewpoint, is exciting. Sadly, I just don’t feel like script, design, direction all meshed together to successfully show this. It’s also worth mentioning that, whilst the set is amazing, its gimmick feels almost too cinematographic at times. There is only ever one piece of action going on at once. Your gaze is directed only to one piece of dialogue, one piece of drama. When a character finishes their piece, they leave. What The Red Barn suggests is that, rather than trying to employ cinematic or bookish techniques, the theatricality of stage performance must be exploited to create really successful on-stage subjectivity.

The Red Barn at the National Theatre: 2/5 stars

“Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”

Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

I’ve been wanting to see the Young Vic’s A View From The Bridge blog 3ever since my theatre-loving mum and more apathetic brother went to see it late last year and loved it. On Thursday I finally got to see the much-lauded production of Arthur Miller’s famous play in its new West End home of Wyndham’s Theatre – the same night that NT Live was broadcasting, although happily this made no impact on our experience at all (in case you’re wondering whether to book for a broadcast night).

A quick synopsis: Eddie Carbone (a caring, strong Longshoreman) lives in Brooklyn with his wife Bea and their orphaned niece Catherine, who’s 18 but still acts around Eddie like she’s twelve. There is clear unresolved sexual tension between Eddie and Catherine, but the family still seems to function reasonably well. Crisis is brought about when Bea’s cousins arrive, smuggled abroad from Italy to provide for their starving family, and have to live with the Carbones to avoid being discovered as illegal immigrants. Catherine and the younger cousin, Rodolpho, fall in love, leaving Eddie outraged that this singing, cooking, blonde, dressmaking boy could steal away his niece for what he thinks are the wrong reasons. I won’t give away the ending, but things only escalate from here…

blog 2           Mark Strong (famous for being the evil guy in tons of movies, like Kick Ass, and the spymaster in The Imitation Game) plays the lead role, Eddie, here with great quiet strength, which slowly gets more and more menacing as the two-hour play goes on. When I first heard there was no interval I was a little nervous; I tend to think anything over about 100 minutes should really have a break – if only to prevent your bum getting numb! However, the director Ivo van Hove gets away with it this time. The play absolutely would have suffered from a break in the tension, and really the only reason I sometimes wanted a break was because the seats, as theatre seats often are, were not the comfiest of chairs.

Strong is really the centre of this piece, exuding a silent energy even when not actually speaking. As the ‘villain’ of the piece, I suppose, he manages to show what Miller often demonstrates in his plays – the understandable reasons behind his eventual descent, making the audience sympathise with him, whilst also being conscious of how wrong his feelings and decisions are.  However, that’s not to say the other actors don’t hold their own next to him. Phoebe Fox, in the difficult role of Catherine, strikes a good balance between innocence and maturity, between girl and women – and it’s interesting that she played Cordelia in the Almeida’s King Lear (review here), another production in which the father figure sexualised the daughter in a disturbing way.blog I appreciated Fox making it clear that Catherine didn’t really realise the effect her clingy actions were having on Eddie and Bea and their relationship, because otherwise she can seem a manipulative character, and the key thing in this play is that there is really no categorically ‘evil’ or ‘bad’ character.

Even America and Italy, compared so often they become almost like characters, show this duality; America is where the Italians come for vital work, whilst in Sicily their family is starving to death, and yet an impassioned speech, powerfully delivered by Luke Norris as Rodolpho, shows that it really isn’t that one-sided. Italy for the immigrants has everything America has, everything except work, and they can’t understand a legal system in the US that forces family honour to go undefended. I loved the way Emun Elliott showed this contrast in the character of Mario – really the most likeable character in the play (for me at least!), together with Nicola Walker’s torn Bea.

I felt like, although Michael Gould did a fine job as the narrator of the tale, the lawyer Alfieri, I didn’t completely see his relevance to the story, except perhaps to help the audience along and to provide a voice of reason? I don’t know, it just seemed odd that he was onstage most of the time, a silent presence watching on with us. It probably would have felt weirder, though, if he’d just appeared to quickly foresee terrible consequences and then vanished. Hmmm… I don’t know the script so not sure how I would have directed it, but I just didn’t really get his character.

A scene from A View from the Bridge              The set also left me confused – good confused, but confused nonetheless. A quick summary – a rectangle onstage, with audience seated either side, as well as in the auditorium. At first it appeared to be a black box, but then the sides and roof lifted off, and a white floor was revealed, edged with black and transparent rectangular seating (if that makes sense).  All the actors wore bare feet on this floor throughout, and only Alfieri ever moved outside of the box space. It was so beautifully streamlined and clean and so pleasing to the eye, and yet… for me it seemed like the clutter and claustrophobia of a small Brooklyn house is surely a key reason behind the painful tension between the relatives, and, although there was a brilliant scene with intensely strained pauses between each individual line, sometimes this chaos and resulting tension was missing for me, and that was a result of the clean, boxy set (whereas in the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire review here – the claustrophobia and lack of privacy came across much more clearly). Perhaps the space seemed much smaller closer up – Wyndham’s is a very different theatre to the Young Vic, so it’s hard to see the original intentions sometimes.

However, the final dramatic piece of setting was absolutely awe-inspiring. *SPOILER ALERT* blog 4The actors, tightly huddled in together like two rugby teams were suddenly, dramatically showered with pints and pints of blood or red rain, soaking through their hair, costumes, pooling across the stage, turning from dark pink to scarlet to almost blue, there was so much. As Strong crawled painfully across the floor, the blood would move with him, creating colours that were gone in a second. I have to say, apart from being very dramatic, it also looked so much fun. I’d love to have a go in that.

This ending brings an intense and tightly focused play to a striking conclusion. The cast are adept at bringing out the complexities in Miller’s multifaceted characters, and the set – whilst not perhaps how I would stage it – is still very impressive. However, it is Strong who is absolutely the main reason to see this production, with a powerful performance as “purely” Eddie.

A View From The Bridge at Wyndham’s Theatre (transfer from Young Vic): 4/5 stars