Skylight by David Hare, NT Live review (Broadcast 17 July 2014)

First aired via satellite on NT Live 17 July 2014

Check NT Live for encore screening details (replays of the pre-recorded show).

RATING: ★★★★☆

David Hare’s Skylight, directed by Stephen Daldry (who directed the sell-out West End production of The Audience with Helen Mirren), is actually a revival. Skylight was originally produced at the National Theatre in 1995, before transferring to the West End and Broadway, and it won an Olivier Award for Best Play. Hare (who wrote, amongst many other things, the screenplays for The Hours and The Reader), first mounted the play during the rule of the last Tory government, and now brings it back during this one. The timing is not a coincidence: this play stands as a defence of the already-whittled away British public sector realm and those who work in it, against what the playwright sees as lazy, selfish attacks from vested interests.

The story retains its 1990s setting, and events take place during a bitterly cold London evening, where schoolteacher Kyra Hollis (Carey Mulligan) receives an unexpected visit from Tom Sergeant (Bill Nighy). The two seemingly have not seen each other in years. Tom is a successful and charismatic restaurateur whose wife has recently died. He walks with the swagger of the effortlessly priviledged, and proudly flashes a rapier irreverent wit, teasing Kyra about the state of her dismal council flat and grotty cheese selection. Kyra is quieter, cautious, not entirely sure if this is a chance meeting or a pleasant catch up. As the evening progresses, the twisted history between the two, who were once friends, then lovers, is slowly revealed.

The past still rubs raw, as we learn that their love was in fact an affair, and one carried on for over six years behind the back of Tom's wife, a woman who Kyra held as a close friend. With the affair revealed, Kyra abruptly walked away, leaving Tom with a dying wife and a mountain of guilt. That was years ago. But why, Kyra wants to know, is Tom back now? Is this a mere friendly visit? Does he want a reckoning for her abandonment of him? Does he want to rekindle their relationship?

The path to establishing Tom's motives is a rocky one, as the two erupt every five minutes into increasingly bitter arguments, not only over their interpretations of the past and who bears the most guilt, but over their now divergent ideologies. Despite their obvious chemistry, Tom is clearly far more at ease with life at the top of the heap in Thatcher's Britain, whereas Kyra now devotes herself to an inner city comprehensive. Tom hammers away at Kyra's altruistic claims that what she does is motivated by a desire for public service, believing she is driven only by a desire to run away from her guilt, and from him and what he stands for. Kyra in turn savages Tom's ignorance of the real poverty she sees everyday and his grotesque levels of wealth.

This was Carey Mulligan's West End debut, as opposed to the stage veteran Nighy (who has worked with Hare before on The Vertical Hour as well as the original Skylight). But the two worked well together on stage with a chemistry that really fizzed: which is important as these actors are selling us a pair of characters who are supposed to have had a passionate affair despite being politically 'misaligned'. Nighy I felt dominated the first act somewhat, being an actor who can 'go big' on command he just filled the space more as the garrulous Tom, with Mulligan a much quieter presence. This changed for the better in the second half, which sees Kyra becoming more assertive and more details of the past revealed, raising the heat of their encounters.

The script and the performances encouraged welcome shifts in the degrees of empathy for each character, even if it was always clear where Hare's sympathies really lie. Nighy effectively conveyed both the swagger of a man who has long forgotten what it is like to be poor, but who is nonetheless someone deeply hurt and quite justifiably angry at having been abandoned by someone who said she loved him dearly. Mulligan as Kyra at one point puts in a vociferous defence of public sector work that roused cheers from the audience during the performance, but it is hard not to feel a false and selfish note creeping in when she claims she 'just had' to flee as soon as the affair was out in the open as she wanted only to 'spare [Tom's] wife the pain.' For someone claiming the moral high ground now, Kyra has her own elephant in the room in the shape of her six-year year betrayal of a woman who was her dear friend.

Skylight is an intimate, often funny and genuinely quite moving experience that doesn't feel twenty years old at all. Worth catching at one of the encore screenings (which will screen a recording of the show reviewed here). Bear in mind that as a filmed event, the camera work does give the onstage antics a 'cinematic' touch for the screen (there are shot/reverse shots edits, zooms, and cuts to second camera).


Owen Van Spall

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