Runs until 17th January 2017
Robert Icke makes his National Theatre debut directing The Red Barn, a daring production of David Hare’s adaptation of Georges Simenon’s La Main. The Red Barn follows the story of the mysterious disappearance of Ray Sanders (Nigel Whitmey) in a snowstorm. Donald Dodd (Mark Strong) goes out for hours to search for him, leaving Ingrid Dodd (Hope Davis) and Mona Sanders (Elizabeth Debicki) to wait for his return. Upon finding out he’s dead a day or so later, the story then dissolves into a series of snapshots that reveal a bizarre triangle between Ingrid, Donald, and Mona, resulting in the psychological unravelling of an ordinary man. What follows is an hour and fifty minutes of cinematic snapshots, punctuated with unexpected dark humour, and a sprinkling of mystery.
One of the most impressive aspects of The Red Barn was the staging. With a distinctly cinematographic feel, Bunny Christie’s design invites the audience to view only parts of the action. The sliding screens zoom in and out of varying locations and times, inviting the audience to ponder what’s occurring in the numerous sets and apertures. A notable scene is the fateful snow storm at the beginning of the play: Paul Constable’s lighting and Tom Gibbons’ audio effects really created the chill and desperation of the scene, with roaring winds and blinding snow. The different sets seemed to be never-ending: the house where the party was set, the Dodd house, Mona’s apartment, the newspaper office and the bedroom. Each was just as impressive as the last, the anticipation every time the screens reopened to reveal what set was there next only added to the excitement of the performance.
“Although each scene was carefully crafted and slowly built to the shocking conclusion, it simply wasn’t enough”
Mark Strong is almost unrecognisable as the unassuming American lawyer, Donald Dodd. His character seems to have woken up in his life to find that everything is not how he had assumed it was. Remarkably unremarkable, Strong’s Donald starts off subservient to his all-seeing wife Ingrid (Davis). Strong seems to dampen some of his own natural charm and charisma to play this character, which becomes evident when it all bursts out with his emotional climax. It is in this moment where Strong really shines, and from then onwards his interactions take on a frustrated intensity that builds to the shocking ending.
Debicki masters the cool complexity of Mona. Her performance as the dead man’s wife is exceptionally understated, with an aura of poise and sophistication that translated beautifully. Yet, the subtlety of her expressions would perhaps translate better on the screen rather than the stage. Meanwhile, Hope Davis plays the cold, manipulative Ingrid with a refined edge, which takes a while to warm up but comes out full force towards the end of the play. Unfortunately, this is a recurring theme. The dialogue was stilted between the entire ensemble in the first third of the piece. Whether or not a Pinter-esque vibe was what they were going for, it read as awkward and wooden. Luckily, the long looks and intent eye contact did manage to turn into something with actual depth and meaning by the midpoint of the play.
The problem lies not in the acting, or the production itself – both of which were elegantly delivered – but in the generally uninspiring storyline. Though billed as a psychological thriller, The Red Barn lacked a certain amount of pace and tension to merit the genre. Although each scene was carefully crafted and slowly built to the shocking conclusion, it simply wasn’t enough. Barring a few moments at the very end of the play, the piece had moments where the story dragged, which is worrying for a relatively long performance. The ensemble ran the constant danger of being upstaged by the elaborate design of the set, but The Red Barn’s real saving grace came in the form of Mark Strong’s incredibly poignant performance and his ability to turn even the most banal of conversations into art.
Image: Manuel Harlan