Review: Mark Strong Stars in The Red Barn, National Theatre

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Coming out of The Red Barn, the audience were buzzing, and understandably so as Bunny Christie’s production design is astounding with its palpable Hitchcock-esque tone.

This is a psychological drama wrapped up as a thriller. Or at least it would like to be. Each scene is heavy with silences and dramatic pauses. Piano keys tinkle in the background as the scene-changing moment draws near. Then that scene will shrink away as black engulfs the stage, the spotlight reducing until it’s just a pinprick on the stage. Or should that be a keyhole? The audience as voyeur. Then vanishing.

A flash of a crime scene photographer’s bulb bursts, then the next scene opens up. And in that momentary flash we have been transported from a forest lodge in the previous scene, to a New York socialite party with its champagne and streamers, then suddenly to a Manhattan penthouse with its sculptures and vast artworks. The back again to the lodge again with its quirky armchairs and side tables. And so on.

Director Robert Icke’s ambition and vision is amazing – to take such a movie-based visual and capture it in the theatre…. Well, it’s impressive stuff. And huge plaudits to the stage management team for their work as the changes are flawless.

BUT.

For all the wonder and spectacle, I go to theatre for story. I want to be drawn in to the characters, I want to witness some form of meaningful exploration of the human experience. And this is where this production walks a fine line.

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The plot here is very subtle, and the narrative drive, well, it’s quite weak. It’s 1969, and Mark Strong plays Donald, a relatively successful lawyer in his mid-40s, living in Connecticut, where he is dominated by his icy cool wife (played superbly by Hope Davis, by the way). What the plays sets out to explore is Donald’s unravelling. His mid-life crisis.

An unfortunate accident during a storm sets off a chain of (small) events that causes Donald to not just to rip up the rule book on his value system, but also confront the way he lives his life.

In very many ways, this is a very small story – one man having a crisis of masculinity (how my heart bleeds) and wanting to embrace the spirit of the hedonism that is sweeping the country at the time. Only thing is, this small story doesn’t really fit in with the tone of the big suspense production.

Robert Icke works very hard to make this a big psychological thriller – everything from the visuals and the silences, to the dramatic use of a piano to ramp up the tension. But only thing is, there really isn’t any tension in this play. Nothing is at stake. Apart from the end where there is a big finale that, well, I’m not sure it makes sense. It doesn’t follow on from what has passed before. I remain unconvinced that it is earned.

Now, this play is based on the novel, La Main, by Georges Simenon, and I have to confess that I have not read this book. Maybe something was lost in David Hare’s adaptation and there is enough in the original novel that would have worked as a taut suspenseful thriller. But if there is, that hasn’t translated from the page to the stage.

It is only really an extraordinary performance from Mark Strong that gives this character and this plot enough drive to propel us through the show, to keep us engaged. I’m not sure I necessarily believe Donald’s choices; I don’t think they are truthful. And, frankly, for all the innovation in the production design, it’s really only this impressive central performance that just about keeps this show on track. Without it, I’m not convinced there would be much beneath the (admittedly mightily impressive) surface.

National Theatre, London, to January 17, 2017

Tickets from £15. Though, frankly, most of the cheap tickets have gone and I think availability is only really particularly great from December onwards.

Note: I saw a Preview – Press Night is next week. If they’ve managed to address any of the above before then, great.

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