Review: The Red Barn, National Theatre

“It’s as if I have lived my whole life with the handbrake on”

On booking for The Red Barn, you’re advised that “due to the tense nature of the play, there will be no re-admittance”. The play – written by David Hare from the 1968 novel La Main by Georges Simenon – is also described as a psychological thriller on the website. It all adds up to a certain degree of expectation about what kind of show it is one is going to see and even though this isn’t my first time at the rodeo, I’ve seen a few shows and know the danger of anticipation, it is often hard not to carry the weight of those expectations with you as you take your seat.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that Robert Icke’s production of The Red Barn was not the play I thought it would be. And that my initial slightly cool reaction was as much a response to that as it was to the material itself. Set in the depths of a Connecticut winter, two couples make their way home from a party and when one of the men doesn’t make it back, it is the consequences of that that makes up the meat of the play. Specifically, it’s how the other man of the group reacts, both right then and from then on, that Simenon and Hare and Icke probe into.

And with Mark Strong at the helm as this model of quiet desperation – a lawyer called Donald Dodd – it’s a subtly devastating portrayal of masculine inadequacy, quiet and measured in its approach and some tableaux even play out like still life paintings. Whether interacting with the unflinching pragmatism of his wife Ingrid or the strange allure of his friend’s widow Mona, played exceptionally by Hope Davis and Elizabeth Debicki respectively, deep emotional truths are stripped back layer by layer as we get closer to the ‘truth’ of what happened, not just on that fateful night but also leading up to it.

And perhaps cognisant of the potential for sterility, Icke’s major directorial innovation is to commission the most cinematic of set designs from Bunny Christie. Using sliding screens to force our perspective as if trapped in a viewfinder, and only revealing certain areas at certain times, we’re constantly reminded of the bigger picture and rarely we ever see it all. Tom GIbbons’ rumbling sound and Paule Constable’s haunting lighting amplify the artistic, and artful, feel, converting The Red Barn from your average piece of theatre into something altogether more subtly nuanced.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (without interval)
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 17th January

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