It opens with an eye examination, and a woman’s iris projected huge behind her. There’s nothing wrong with her eyesight, she’s told. This’ll prove symbolic: Ingrid Dodd sees everything.
The Red Barn, David Hare’s stage version of an obscure novel, Le Main (The Hand), by thriller-writer Georges Simenon, is very much about what gets seen and what doesn’t. The focus on specifics (body parts and buildings) doesn’t seem accidental. This is a show, directed with laser-eyed precision by Robert Icke, that deals in the throbbingly significant close-up. The eye, the hand, the red barn, the stage itself sliced into bits. Parts that stand for more than what they are.
Four people battle through a Connecticut snowstorm, on their way back from a party in 1969. Ingrid and Donald Dodd make it, as does their guest Mona Sanders. Her husband Ray, Donald’s old chum from law school, does not, and is later found dead. Donald appears to go back into the storm to search for him, but something goes awry, that much we – like Ingrid – can see. That night, Donald becomes entranced with the hand of the sleeping Mona. Later, Ingrid will find Donald’s cigarette butts in the barn; that was where he’d been for the two hours when he was meant to be searching for Ray.
Mark Strong’s Donald looks like Don Draper without the charisma. He’s the decent man who spends those two hours, in that red barn, realising he’s wasted his life through fear and timidity. It’s less the perfect murder than the perfect storm: through jealousy, he allows Ray to die. Ray could be his alter-ego, the easily successful man who takes whatever he wants, what he wants usually being beautiful women. And what Donald wants is Ray’s beautiful woman, Mona (Elizabeth Debicki, impossibly statuesque and cold as a marble statue too). The inscrutable Ingrid may be watchful, all-seeing, all-knowing, but she also oddly seems to push Donald towards Mona. Things get ugly, and melodramatic. Obviously.
The Red Barn has, in truth, a pretty darn hokey plot and remote, surface-sheened characters it’s hard to care for. Icke’s super-stylised, cinematic take can feel too much like ice-cold pastiche. The characters’ delivery is slow, portentous and unreal – meticulous, but lacking emotion. We’re in the realm of noir, of Hitchcock or slick modern homages by the Coen Brothers or Todd Haynes.
It’s self-confident in its slow pace, running at nearly two hours without an interval (a choice that almost looks like Icke is chuckling at us, given his recent comments about leaving the theatre in the interval if a play is boring). Yet the tension is held masterfully, and The Red Barn remains compelling even when the plot is predictable, the characters eye-roll worthy. Loud ticks, ominous musical washes and blinding flashes of light all add to the – at times literal – low hum of menace.
Bunny Christie’s design is stunning. That storm is brilliantly evoked in widescreen with battering projections, and we rapidly cut between different locations: the house, the party, Mona’s chic Manhattan apartment. Again, these are deliberately artfully constructed. The party is entirely matte grey, down to the balloons; Mona’s flat utterly art-gallery white. It’s an exercise in style, like these wealthy people’s lives, and like the production.
But the thing The Red Barn will be remembered for is the scene changes. That’s not as bad as it sounds. Black screens silently whizz in and out like a lens, cropping the action or providing a viewfinder on the scene. It’s another stylish move, and speaks to the themes of the play: who sees how much, whether we ever get the full view of the people we think we love.
It’s also apparently cinematic. This is the technique of the camera, to close in, to crop. Icke is here revealing the action of framing itself, reminding us what might prevent us from seeing, or what it might force us to focus on (close-up: a hand; meaning: desire). He’s alerting us to the storytelling technique of the form he’s aping. But might there be a hint of undermining that technique, too, by revealing it – as if to prove, theatre can do this too, and in doing so can even show you how it’s done?
The production certainly does prove theatre can be cool and crisp, atmospheric and icily gripping as any noir. But it also feels too neat; a scalpel-sharp clinical exercise in genre, not human and heartfelt.
The Red Barn is on until 17th January 2017 at the National Theatre. Click here for more details.