National Theatre's star-studded current production to be streamed live into Queen's Film Theatre on August 3
David Hare’s 1995 play Skylight is back almost 20 years after winning an Olivier Award for its premiere National Theatre production, directed by Richard Eyre. This time around it is Oscar-nominated Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader, Billy Elliot) who directs Bill Nighy, Matthew Beard and Carey Mulligan in this anti-love story.
Tom (Nighy) visits his former mistress Kyra (Mulligan), three years after she ran out on their affair after Tom’s saintly wife, Alice, discovered their secret. Alice has been dead for a year. We know this because Tom’s teenage son, Edward, comes to visit Kyra twice in the same 24-hour period as his father, telling her how unhappy their whole family has been since she left.
Kyra had worked in the family restaurants and looked after Tom and Alice’s children. The action takes places in her grotty tower flat in a then unfashionable Kensal Rise. The single set location adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere, compounding the bleakness of Kyra’s new lifestyle as well as adding to the tension between old lovers reunited.
The set, complete with snow-covered branches and buzzers that don’t work, is the clever creation of designer Bob Crowley. Kyra makes a bolognese from scratch, as Nighy looks horrified by her old rind of cheese. He offers to have some delivered freshly each week. This typifies these characters. Tom thinks he can pay anyone to do anything and Kyra enjoys self sacrifice, living in a horrible flat a long commute from the rough school she now works at.
As she cooks, we expect the tension between the two will boil over with the pasta but ultimately things simmer down until there is nothing left between them, and it is Edward who provides Kyra with the warmth and understanding that Tom does not. Despite being an adolescent, Edward shows the thoughtfulness that Tom lacks. Beard’s Tom is funny, angry and at times, innocent.
For both Beard and Mulligan this is a West End debut. Mulligan – best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in An Education and as Daisy in the recent adaption of The Great Gatsby – gives a still, almost diminutive performance throughout, which makes her rare outbursts of anger all the more arresting. The audience jumps when she throws a drawer of cutlery across the room as Tom judges her home, her lack of friends and her job.
Mulligan stops Kyra from slipping in to the holier than thou territory that her character has a tendency towards, delivering her lines with self-awareness and modesty. She talks about trying to help 'just one student' in her role as a teacher at a down at heel comprehensive school in London.
Her angry monologue on a polarized Britain, where the rich get richer, is arresting, and she is convincing as the altruistic restaurant worker turned teacher, but while the discussions between Kyra and Tom do resonate with modern audiences, I can’t help but agree with Libby Purves who described their debates as 'like being hit round the head with a copy of The Guardian'.
The popular banker-bashing lines are sandwiched next to the clap on the back for social workers, teachers and nurses, and there can be no doubt that this is a David Hare play.
Nighy, who has worked with Hare ten times, offers his usual powerful performance, giving Tom, the widowed, wealthy restaurateur, likability. Nighy plays the loveable cad confidently, pacing his former lover’s apartment kicking chairs rather than touching them, highlighting more the snobbery his life in Wimbledon by way of Chelsea dictates, rather than the poverty in which Kyra lives.
Tom berates his son and criticises his wife for dying, claiming she did it 'as punishment' for his affair, and yet he can be comical and empathetic. Nighy’s complex character has perhaps the more interesting outlook – he is an overgrown lad who comments on modern Britain’s distaste for other people’s wealth saying, 'This is the only country that doesn’t want to see people getting on'.
There is chemistry between Mulligan and Nighy, though the idea that the pair might have had a six-year affair is somewhat of a stretch, given that she looks much younger than her years. Running at a solid three hours including interval, Skylight is pacey and for the most part a two-handed sparring match between two excellent actors.
Audiences will have another opportunity to watch Hare’s characters attempt to extricate their personal feelings from their public ideals when Skylight is streamed live to Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast for the next NT Live event on August 3.