19 July 2014

NT Live: Skylight

David Hare’s play Skylight was first performed in 1995 at the National Theatre in London. It transferred to the West End and later Broadway and returned to the West End in 1997. To put Skylight in the context of contemporary British politics, there had been a succession of Tory administrations from 1979, firstly under Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, which would end with the election of Tony Blair in May 1997. The play has now been revived again in the West End for a three-month run under the direction of Stephen Daldry. Under the auspices of National Theatre Live, the performance on 17 July was transmitted for live projection in cinemas all-round the UK.

There are only three characters in Skylight: Tom Sergeant, a successful restaurateur and businessman, played, as in 1997, by Bill Nighy; Bill’s son, Edward (Matthew Beard); and Kyra Hollis (Carey Mulligan, who was in the film, Inside Llewyn Davis). Tom, recently a widower, arrives in Kyra’s cold, run-down flat, seeking to rekindle a relationship with the woman who had been both his employee and his lover. She has chosen to teach and live in tough areas of London, he has moved to Wimbledon. The play is a clash of personalities and attitudes, but between a man and woman who have loved, and still have something, for each other. In some ways, Skylight has dated in 20 years. The references to “Yellow Pages” seem archaic until you remember that “Google” didn’t become a registered domain until 1997. And state education in the poorer parts of London is now regarded as much improved – ironically it’s now the rural and seaside areas of England (Kyra’s hometown was one of the latter) which are falling behind.

Nonetheless the play remains engrossing with its enduring major themes of the tension between free market capitalism, embodied by Tom although he hates bankers, and Kyra’s self-sacrificing social responsibility, and of the eternal one of unfulfilled and probably unfulfillable love. The subtle structure of the play – the opening and closing scenes between Kyra and Edward counterpoint Tom and Kyra’s encounter –the sharpness of the dialogue - as when Tom says scathingly of a management guru, “He's one of those people who's been told he's good with people” – and the quality of the acting by all three of the cast were most impressive. And so much better than Hare’s recent BBC TV drama series with Nighy: Page  Eight, and its two sequels, together forming The Worricker Trilogy.

This was the first time I’d seen a play live as a cinema projection. It is an experience in itself and not the same as being in the theatre where a member of the audience has a fixed viewpoint, so might see something like this:

and be aware throughout of the three-dimensional nature of Bob Crowley’s clever set and the actors moving within it. For the live cinema there were, I believe, four cameras available so extensive use could be made of cinematic devices like close-ups:

In the case of a glass of wine held by Kyra which gave Tom a chance to touch her hand, perhaps it was too close-up, and over-emphasised an action which would have been less conspicuous to the theatre audience. A screening is a different experience than actual theatre, and not necessarily worse or better, although it has to be recognised that the quality of the cinema’s projection and sound systems  is an extra complication – I’m not sure the one I was in would have coped well with live opera. Not that the acoustics or seating arrangements of London theatres are perfect.

Something which was unique to the NTLive experience was the interview David Hare gave to Emma Freud during the interval. Hare said that he had made it a condition of this revival that it would be made available widely in this way, and anyone who consequently had the chance to see Skylight should feel grateful. The last Hare play I was able to see in a theatre was Pravda, many years ago, and I would very much like to have had the chance to see some of his more recent theatre work, for example, South Downs.

Anyone who wanted to see Skylight in this way and couldn’t get a seat should look out for forthcoming Encore showings on the National Theatre Live website. There will be an international screening on 23 October.

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