Sir David Hare’s adaptations of three early Chekhov plays have been the high point of my theatre-going this year, and I went to see his new play at the National Theatre, The Red Barn, anticipating that it would give me much pleasure. It didn’t – and I think I know why.
Based on La Main, a novel by Georges Simenon that he calls one of his romans durs (as opposed to the Inspector Maigret series; and the splendid programme essay on Simenon by Julian Barnes is one of the best things about the entire enterprise), this is a very big deal production for the NT. Not only is it a new play by Hare, but the director is wunderkind Robert Icke, who thrilled us all with his Oresteia; Bunny Christie’s sets are marvellous, as is Paule Constable’s lighting. The cast includes Mark Stone (taking time off from making films and TV serials) as the chief character, Donald Dodd, and Elizabeth Debicki (as Mona Sanders, the wife of Dodd’s best friend), hot foot from The Night Manager.
The plot is simple. Two couples, the Dodds and the Sanders are coming home in Connecticut from a swanky winter party, when their car is immobilised in a blizzard, and one of them doesn’t make it. Was Ray Sanders, Donald’s mate from their Yale days, murdered?
Ickes tells the story in a clever cinematic fashion. We see what’s happening on stage through apertures that vary in size and position, starting with Ingrid Dodd (a fine, controlled performance by Hope Davis) being reassured by her oculist that she has perfect vision – and an eye is projected in the aperture and grows to giant size. This is obviously meant to be a metaphor, and is meant to be echoed in Donald’s final words. I found it a trope too far.
Obviously the play is intended to be a thriller, shades of Hitchcock abound, and you’d be able to guess the genre of this play from simply hearing Tom Gibbons’ sound effects – very like the radio thrillers I used to hear in my long-ago American youth. About halfway through the interval-less two hours, though, the genre switches. It becomes an exploration of the psyche of Donald Dodd. It’s no longer a murder mystery but the tale of an affair between him and Mona. All the suspense has gone; our jangled nerves are prematurely soothed. Hare failed in the first half, I think, to make us care very much about what Donald is really like, and so we don’t care all that much when we find out in the second half. It’s no longer a question of motive, but of psychological type, and it’s very hard to get interested in Donald in the second hour of the play when we’ve spent the first hour being more interested in the two women, Ingrid and Mona.
All the wondrous apertures, projections and shifting stages do is to substitute for cinematic montage, enabling the narrative to be told in flashbacks. To no avail, though, when the narrative switches genre halfway through. I hope you’ve noticed that I managed to tell you this much about the disappointing evening without having to issue a spoiler alert. Actually, that also tells you what’s wrong with the whole concept of the play.