David Hare's Skylight is as deserving of praise on its return to the West End after a national tour (and, almost incidentally, a change of government) as on its first viewing two years ago at the National Theatre. It remains a masterly blend of the personal and political, its perceptible flaws far outweighed by its emotional and intellectual vigour.
Bill Nighy has taken over from Michael Gambon as Tom, the enterprising Thatcherite restaurateur who seeks out his ex-mistress a year after the death of his wife. Nighy dominates the stage not through simple forceful presence but through the constant movements of his rangy frame, flapping his designer overcoat as if it would envelop the tatty Kensal Rise flat in which he finds himself. He gestures with his entire body, as when, bending with exaggerated assiduity to grate a piece of Parmesan, he resembles a grotesque parody of Stalinist dignity-of-labour art. His voice, similarly, is never at rest, stuttering, catching, repeating a half-phrase, a non-stop mêlée of bluster and insecurity; for particular emphasis, he strikes himself ungently on the forehead.
Stella Gonet maximises the humanity of Kyra, Tom's assistant-turned-lover and now teaching in East Ham. Hare apportions things fairly consistently throughout the play: Kyra gets the finer sentiments, Tom the better lines. This does, though, create the danger that Kyra could sound simply earnest and worthy, without any spark which might have attracted Tom to her all those years ago; Kyra is a woman who – in what could be a stroke of characterisation but is more likely overwriting – even in her most direct, heartfelt moments, will still say "in which" or "at which" rather than end a clause with a preposition.
Despite her outbreaks of fervent ideological soundness, Gonet succeeds in keeping Kyra down to earth, occasionally too sardonic either for Tom or his eighteen-year-old son Edward (Theo Fraser Steele), whose appearances bookend the play's main evening-night-morning sequence of events. Although Nighy's Tom is altogether more magnetic, Gonet's Kyra manages to hold her own against him as they spar interchangeably about the state of the nation and of one another.
It is the expertise with which Hare plaits these strands that gives Skylight its power. His individuals are more than simple emblems of acquisitiveness and altruism, and although the author's sympathies may lie more on one side than the other, he steadfastly refuses to load the dice in favour of Kyra. In fact, we end up identifying with neither in terms of ideology, but feeling sympathy for each on a human level. Head, heart and viscera are all engaged; one cannot ask much more of theatre.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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