The Red Barn – National Theatre, London

Writer: David Hare (adapted from the novel by Georges Simenon)
Director: Robert Icke
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Sometimes a single event can change your life forever; it can set you on a path you didn’t expect, change you into someone else, it can even make you a murderer. Opening at The National Theatre, David Hare’s new play The Red Barn, adapted from a novel by prolific French author Georges Simenon, considers the collision between natural disasters and human tragedy, and the ramifications for the life of one man.

tell-us-block_editedOne brutally stormy night in 1969, after a glamorous party, two couples battle their way back to the Connecticut home of Ingrid and Donald Dodd, but on the way Ray Sanders is lost in the confusion. Terrified, the Dodds and Ray’s wife, Mona, hole-up till the storm passes and they find out what happened to him. In the aftermath, Donald and Mona are drawn together setting them on a dangerous path, but what happened to Ray and is one of these people a murderer?

In his new play, David Hare proves himself an expert in the creation of suspense, as suspicion ebbs and flows around his fascinatingly ambiguous characters. Showing us snapshots of the story, sometimes weeks or months apart, Hare slowly drip-feeds information about the circumstances surrounding Ray’s disappearance, how they all came to be where they are and about the inner life of these people. Scenes that often start with mundane or business-like topics spectacularly twist into tense emotional confrontations, and you watch the whole thing with a nervous anticipation of what’s to come.

Director Robert Icke, darling of the Almeida, has spectacularly interpreted Hare’s words creating a bold and innovative visual approach using horizontal and vertical curtains to slowly reveal detail. Small rectangular windows open in one area of the stage; sometimes these expand only enough for you to see a small piece of the action, at others they open wider as the characters walk from room to room, and only reveal the whole stage when a character is emotionally exposed. At times these reflect the box-effect often used in 60s TV shows and film; at others, they’re like an eye opening and closing on a hidden world.

Bunny Christie’s glorious set merges the nicely appointed Dobbs country home with Mona’s palatial but minimalist New York apartment, while the party scenes set before the storm are full of 60s chic and swing. Icke has been unafraid to shroud the audience in darkness during scene changes to ratchet up the tension, while these moments are filled with phone calls that add significant plot points, while Tom Gibbons’ sound design is full of ticking clocks, swirling winds and thumping beats that build anticipation in the play’s key moments.

After deserved acclaim in the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge, Mark Strong brings his full power to the sinister role of Donald Dodd who elicits suspicion from the start and the audience is never quite sure what to make of him. Strangely calm after the disappearance of his friend and by turns frustrated, furiously angry and at times even lost, Strong’s performance keeps us at arm’s length, never quite evoking our sympathy but at the same time compelling us to watch.

The women in his life, Hope Davis as his wife Ingrid and Elizabeth Debicki as Mona, are the opposites of each other. Ingrid is calm to the point of emotionless, described as never doing anything cheap or low, expecting the same standards in others, which Davis perfectly captures. Mona craves affection and Debicki gives her a different kind of coldness that, while longing for passion, never allows herself to fully succumb to it.

This phenomenal production is a triumph for The National Theatre full of intensity and style that grips you entirely for its 1 hour 50 minute run time. The bold decision to run without an interval reflects original novelist Simenon’s desire that his stories be read it one sitting, and places the integrity of the work above a commercial need to sell interval drinks.

“I lost at life,” Donald says as he rants about the man he always thought he should be; someone who moved more freely in the world – watching him question his life and deciding what he’s prepared to do about it is a rare theatrical joy. Suspenseful, thrilling and beautifully paced, The Red Barn is theatre at its most breathtaking.

Runs until17 January 2017 | Image:Manuel Harlan

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Theatre at its most breathtaking

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