The Red Barn

xtheredbarnw300h200-jpgqitokypwyklne-pagespeed-ic-nxppd-1b7fThe National Theatre on the South Bank is a complex of buildings: a museum, restaurants and cinema. It was built after WWII, in 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain, as a celebration of survival and as a statement of confidence in the future. It was designed in what has been called the Brutalist style and features the works of both national and international playwrights. Last night at the Lyttleton Theatre we attended David Hare’s new play, “The Red Barn,” inspired by George Simenon’s story “La Main.” Simenon was a Belgian, but lived in France throughout WWII. In 1945 he managed to get a visa to live in the USA and was fascinated thereafter with the astonishments of American life — including jukeboxes in every bar and cafe, universal gum chewing and men wearing hats, even indoors when enjoying a meal! He was a highly sexed man and managed a rather complicated marital life of “ménages-à-trois” and “à quatre.” America was a highly moralistic culture at the time, but this seemed less than bothersome to Simenon, until one of his lovers became pregnant and he felt impelled to divorce one wife and then marry his amour. It was at this time that the theme of sexual jealousy (so intense that it could lead to murder) entered his work. “The Red Barn” is a rumination on such a theme, as well as being a rather astute observation of life in conservative post war America, keeping in mind the book by Sloan Wilson, “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.”

Donald Dodd, played by Mark Strong the gifted actor who performed last year in Arthur Miller’s, “A View from the Bridge,” another American themed play on sexual jealousy, is someone whose own life is a mystery to him. He feels stymied in both his career and marriage to Ingrid (played with an unearthly icy calm) by Hope Davis. Ingrid tells Donald at one point that “she married him because she knew he would never surprise her.” The play opens during a terrible and realistically presented snowstorm. Four actors struggle through the high winds to shelter in the Dodd’s home, but only three of them make it through the tempest. It is Ray, the husband of Mona, played by the beauteous crane-like Elizabeth Debicki, who is lost. Donald goes out to search for him and returns two hours later, empty-handed.

Through clever flashback and cinematic-like fade outs, we become aware that there has always been an underlying tension between Donald and Ray, a deep competition and jealousy since university. At this point a new and disturbing element enters, almost by stealth. Donald is madly desirous of Mona. This madness is literally enabled by his wife in her effort to control events. An affair ensues, but it is a chilly and unsettling one. Mona is cool and contained, though shot through with erotic charge. Donald is tentative, but driven by emotions he can barely understand. Little by little he begins to painfully recognise his deepest conflicts and frustrations, but it is too late. The action unrolls in a somewhat desultory but devastating way. We the audience are waiting for something. The air is thick with tension. The denouement arrives with inevitable shock as well as recognition. Yes, we say, that is absolutely what must happen.

Unlike many contemporary plays, this play has an iron-clad structure. It is well made. It takes its time to its dramatic (in every sense) conclusion. If you intend to come to London, beg, borrow, or steal if you must, to get tickets.

Kaaren Hale

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