For those of you who love live theatre enough to cherish the teamwork of two major acting talents, Skylight by David Hare should motivate you to book yourself a seat this spring, for the run is limited and the play will close in late June. Another reason to move quickly is Hare’s language — only Tom Stoppard among his present colleagues uses language with his facility, and I find Hare’s words more accessible than Stoppard’s. Skylight is not a major work however, and when stripped of its language and its star power, it’s just another of those two-handers (there is a third character, played by Matthew Beard, but he’s peripheral and appears only to open and close the story) about the search for love among two oddly matched lovers. In that sense it joins the genre that includes The Voice of the Turtle, The Gin Game, The Fourposter and dozens of others. Hare’s use of language, the words and thoughts he puts into the mouths of his two principal characters, elevate the material somewhat, for these are a very well-drawn middle aged and successful entrepreneur called Tom Sergeant and his ex-mistress, a charming and fiercely independent younger woman called Kyra Hollis.
These two vivid characters had a long term affair that’s been over f or three years as the play begins. Sergeant’s estranged son drops in on Hollis at her Council House London flat to warn her that his father is planning to see her, now that his mother has finally succumbed to the cancer with which she was suffering even during the time of the affair. Since she walked out on Sergeant three years ago, Hollis has grieved over her loss of him, worked through that, and is now settled in a job as teacher to underprivileged children, perfectly content with her “little life” with all its deprivations. Sergeant does indeed arrive, and for the next two hours he presents every argument he can come up with trying to persuade Kyra Hollis to return as his lover, and more. He wants now to marry her.
Carey Mulligan is a film star from Britain who was seen on Broadway as “Nina” in The Seagull in 2008 and she followed it with a slew of movies including An Education for which she had major nominations and awards as well. In the immediate days ahead her latest film, Far From The Madding Crowd will be released. Mulligan’s work in Skylight is spectacular and in watching her work with her co-star Bill Nighy one is reminded of the polish and spit that informed the best work of other established duos, couples like Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn and in this day and age Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in their early works together.
What’s interesting here is that this couple seems so unsuited to each other, yet their feelings run deep and are vividly displayed throughout the evening. Mr. Nighy’s approach to his character is very different than was that of Michael Gambon, who created the role in 1996. Nighy plays him as a tightly wound neurotic, a dominating successful business tycoon (he owns a chain of successful restaurants) whose son is a thorn in his side because of their differences about just about everything. He is the one who, in telling his ill wife about their affair, drove his mistress away, and in the three years since, he has come to know how desperately important she is to his happiness, and he’s come to claim her, or at least to make an ardent pitch for her return. Hare has given both characters powerful weapons — words that pour from them, cascading over the stage apron into the audience where they make us laugh out loud as well as cringe at the brute force with which some of the angrier arguments are tossed. I don’t think many would root for the man in this battle of the sexes, but Mr. Nighy’s performance makes that even more unlikely. At one point, when Ms. Mulligan’s “Kyra” hurled a tirade back at him, her performance and the argument behind it were so powerful that the audience gave her a round of applause. Unheard of, at least since the days of melodrama on a Show Boat.
Mr. Nighy’s performance is controversial. He has filled it with tics, constant hand motions, overblown facial maneuverings, and tremendous vocal acrobatics ranging from sotto voce to hissy fits, a man accustomed to having his own way, one who is enraged at rejection. Of course there are people like that — I don’t think many would want to know them — but they do exist and I found Nighy’s work arresting and honest. Mr. Hare is clearly on Kyra’s side, and her decision about the direction her future life will take is satisfying to us, and makes the evening more rewarding because of it.
At a length of over two hours, Skylight could use some pruning, but David Hare had a lot to get off his chest about the nature of love, what it means, how it nurtures, how much pain it causes, and he found two vivid characters through whom he could preach to us. Then he found two actors to give us a glimpse of what actors can bring to the playwright’s words that enrich and assist them to hit home.
Skylight is a corking good show that Director Stephen Daldry has staged with his usual understanding and insight.