To all those audiences now coming to the movie house screenings of the National Theatre of London stage productions (known as “NT Live”), a plane ticket and a hotel in one of the most expensive cities in the world now seem quite unnecessary. Either way, these two choices are your only access. As enjoyable as stagecraft and enhanced audio as the Met productions have been for some years, in the NTL productions there is the added benefit of the atmosphere of the small, contained, far less grandiose theaters in which London plays actually take place. You are in the room.
The “room,” as a consequence of it being a stage play and not an opera or ballet, in which much of the drama depends upon grandeur, is much more like a painting, wherein stasis becomes a dependable ingredient against which the inherent drama of the play itself creates the movement arc. Some may find it a bit claustrophobic: I find it decidedly intriguing. Rather than focus on the Alps moving along the stage in the background, I want to focus on content.
And Skylight gives you plenty of that. Written by David Hare in the 1990s, it was somewhat of a screed written against the backdrop of a Thatcherite Britain, which in its two opposing factions of society—the very rich and the losing middle class—speaks very much to our own society today, in which the inequities between rich and poor are extreme not only on an economic scale but also on a social scale. In Britain old school ties and class still retain the same clout when it comes to ascending the ladder, while in our country the poor are labeled as the cause of their own affliction. Idealism is regarded with a measure of contempt, and so it is in this play.
Stephen Daldry, the director, scored a huge coup by casting Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan as the two principal characters. For those of you who are Nighy fans, it is unusual to see him in a leading man role. His tall, elegant, kinetic frame is in the character of Tom Sargeant, a wealthy, middle-aged restaurateur with the swagger of a man clad in a bespoke overcoat with a tropical holiday home and a chauffeur-driven Mercedes. He enters the scene as a grief-stricken, lonely man hoping to reignite a romance he once had with a now late-20s woman, Kyra Hollis. We learn that their six-year involvement ended when Sargeant’s wife found out about the affair via what Kyra regarded as an act of betrayal, after which she abruptly left. Apparently a close friend of the family’s even while carrying on with Sargeant, her departure was followed by the death of Sargeant’s wife from cancer. Three years later, still in grief and stricken with guilt, Sargeant reappears in Kyra’s dismal, freezing council flat hoping to woo her back. In the meantime, she has built a new life teaching at a down-at-heels school to which she commutes by bus, and to whose students she is admirably dedicated.
For the next two hours, there ensues a gripping, biting, pleading, sometimes even comedic, attempt to recover the memory of rapture, now long gone for Kyra, who has fully committed herself to social good. (She even finds the lack of heat in her apartment a suitable accompaniment to virtuous work.) She absorbs the athletic imprecations of Nighy’s characteristic acting style, which in addition to the grace of his lithe and ever-in-motion figure also involves twitches of both face and hands, with seeming neutrality. Nighy has a peculiar speech pattern that causes him to hesitate at unexpected places, and then explodes, forcing you to listen carefully. At times his sentences end with a brief snort, as if to substitute for an exclamation point. All of this time Carey Mulligan, with her dazzling acting skill, seems only to be absorbing. He appears to be the bully, making fun of her idealism, her execrable living conditions, her devotion to duty at the expense of the most trivial comfort, while after a time one appreciates that her impassivity is her own form of bullying. She is as implacable in her determination to hold onto her life as he is to draw her back into their romance, which she admits was for her scarring in its depth. It is also a tussle between classes (although there is a hint that she was actually raised in comfortable circumstances) and ideals, a have, have/not argument. But most of all it is a treatise on how one can seldom recapture the magic of the past, however easy it might be to pretend it so.
The production has been such a success in London that it moves to New York in the spring for a several-month run.
If there was anything jarring about the play, it is the difference in age between the characters. Nighy played this same role in the 1990s; he is much older now. Mulligan has the visage of a very young woman, so the playing field doesn’t seem quite even. Nevertheless, the two use the stage as an emotional trampoline credibly. It is a fine evening, enhanced by the charm of the “presenter” interviewing Hare at the intermission; as always, the Brits know the rules of intelligent and amusing interviewing, which complements the work.
NT Live’s Skylight is coming to Lighthouse Cinema, November 9 and 12.
The next NT Live production, Frankenstein, based in the novel by Mary Shelley, will be screened at Cinema 13 in Monterey, Lighthouse Cinemas in Pacific Grove and Del Mar Theatre in Santa Cruz this weekend. (See our PAMB Calendar page.) The stars of this great play are Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller, who alternate as “the creature,” and “the creator,” and it is not to be missed. Told from the perspective of the creature versus the creator, as it was in the movie, it is a performance of masterly athleticism and unremitting intensity. Fortunately, we can see it in our own neighborhood, and if you don’t, I can honestly tell you, you will be sorry. Seldom does one have the opportunity to dwell among the greats of theater in one’s own backyard.