The Red Barn

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green reviews Robert Icke's bold and dramatic cinematic production, The Red Barn.

Elizabeth Debicki The red barn

Crime, jealously and desire make a combustible mix in Robert Icke’s boldly cinematic production, The Red Barn (Lyttelton auditorium, National Theatre), a startling new play by David Hare, based on a little known novel, La Main, by Georges Simenon.

The year is 1969, the place a Connecticut farmhouse, and a fierce snowstorm is raging outside. Four well-heeled suburbanites are returning after a smart party but only three of them make it back. To find his old friend Ray, a successful advertising executive, Lawyer Donald Dodd leaves the house quite reluctantly, only to return two hours later alone as his efforts to save his pal have come to nothing, and Ray has perished in the snow. This initiates a strange triangular relationship between the others, as Donald, nudged along by his all-seeing wife Ingrid, begins an affair with Ray’s spouse Mona.

This play is part whodunit and part a tale of frustration, laced with sexual tension and release, as we follow Donald as he struggles with desires and comfort, the need for something more and the need to settle for less. Although the relationships and back story are subtly developed, there’s never an acute enough sense of what drives the characters, who thread a thin line between being enigmatic and seeming opaque, and their slowly paced, clinical exchanges don’t achieve the cumulative force they need to.

Icke however manages to ramp up and maintain the tension in true Hitchcock style, while Bunny Christie’s astounding stage design with screens that slide open and shut, in a cinematic manner, to reveal or frame scenes or focus tightly on details, raising tricky questions about what’s visible, what’s hidden and what’s uncertain. Indeed in moments like these Robert Icke, making his directorial debut at the National, guides our attention like an unseen magician.

Olivier’s award-winner Mark Strong captures the frustrated, modest manner of upright lawyer Donald Dodd, who is his own words, has spent his whole life with the handbrake on. He is presented with two lifestyles in the arms of different women, with both paths coming with their own joys and tribulations. Hope Davis is coolly intimidating as his homely self-contained wife Ingrid, while Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager) makes her London theatre debut, as the frosty, elegant Mona.

This finely tuned psychological thriller, which has the effort of looking through a keyhole at other people’s lives, may have a storyline that we have seen many times before, but it is certainly staged with great aplomb.

The Red Barn

Playing at the Lyttelton auditorium until 17 January 

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