It wasn’t that slow, despite slowness being the prevailing view of my fellow theatregoers immediately after leaving the National Theatre, having seen The Red Barn. A slow-burner, perhaps, in the sense that not all is revealed at once, and there are some long and awkward silences, but this is all commensurate with the tension that the play creates. But I was never disengaged or disinterested in what was going on, and the alternative is much worse. Imagine a disorganised play with too many subplots and characters thrown in that rattles through its journey too quickly: this is the opposite.
That said, the first few scenes came across as unnecessary complicated, though the order in which they appear is fairly common, I suppose, to thriller plays. Put simply, the narrative isn’t in chronological order at first, though it settles down eventually, and the audience must therefore work out whether what is being acted out in any given moment is ‘before’ the present, and how far before the present, or if we’ve switched back to the present itself. At least in this play, it doesn’t take huge amounts of brainpower to work it all out in the end, and if anything, the details and consequences of the show’s critical incident become clear a tad too soon.
As tends to be the case with National Theatre productions, the set is gorgeous and impressive, deftly shifting between residential and commercial premises (for example) seemingly effortlessly. There’s something quite ‘film noir’ about the whole thing, particularly in the scene changes. I mustn’t go into details regarding the staging, except to say I felt a little sorry for people sat in the first couple of rows – their sightlines, I should imagine, were rather restricted at times, even more so than would ordinarily be expected.
Indeed, there’s not much that’s ordinary about this thriller. At no point is anyone suddenly scared by loud gunfire or a bomb – I know, I know, the same could be said of many a production that does include such sound effects – and a lot of the intrigue and interest lies in emotional and psychological aspects of the story. Donald Dodd (Mark Strong) is the sort of character who has been living his life a certain way for decades but must now face up to his shortcomings. Dodd wouldn’t entirely be out of place in an Arthur Miller play. Whether this is because of Strong’s Olivier Award-winning performance in A View from the Bridge, or veteran playwright David Hare’s tight and edgy script, I haven’t decided. Perhaps it is both.
A distinct lack of sentimentality and emotion is commendable, if risky. It is possible to walk away from this play feeling nothing for any of the characters, and thinking that the show runs without an interval as, if there were one, people may think twice before returning for the second half. I do not think it would make much difference: the audience’s patience is rewarded in any event, as the second half is more gripping than the first. In the first half, at least two scenes are almost wasted depicting a party, and those scenes, in my humble opinion, could be excised from the play with only minimal changes required to the rest of it.
Giving a needed extra layer to what would otherwise be a relentlessly gloomy production is Hope Davis’ Ingrid Dodd, whose deadpan approach gives her lines far more hilarity than would be evident just from reading the script. I also enjoyed the all-too-short but nonetheless delightful scene with Mr Dodd, Donald’s father (Michael Elwyn), ‘old school’ both in custom and in trains of thought.
The subtlety and delicateness are golden. But I can’t help but compare this production to Marmite: it’s not for everyone, but if you’re looking for something off the beaten path and profound, The Red Barn is worth seeing.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Red Barn
On their way back from a party, two couples struggle home through the snow. Not everyone arrives safely…
The Red Barn
a new play by David Hare
based on the novel, La Main, by Georges Simenon
Friday Rush & Day Tickets Available
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes. (no interval)