The Red Barn is termed a psychological thriller and whilst Le Main, the novel by Georges Simenon on which it is based is just that, this new play by David Hare somehow doesn’t quite cut the mustard. The opening sequence of four people battling their way in a snowstorm promises much. There’s a sense of impending doom and Tom Gibbons use of sound along with Paule Constable’s lighting, adds to the feeling of something ‘nasty in the woodshed’. Trouble is, the denouement, which should be shocking, feels underpowered.
Le Main itself is set in the first person, so the reader is immediately able to get into the head of main character Donald Dodd. Despite all the best intentions and skill of the playwright, designer and cast, that viewpoint is difficult to realise here. No-one is be more able to achieve the inner turmoil than the always excellent Mark Strong, but even with him in the lead role, the edge of the seat stuff is absent. Instead we get a beautifully styled and well performed production, but not one that does what it says on the tin.
Donald Dodd is married, but not happily, to Ingrid, a rather cold fish, who sees everything but says nothing. In a series of cleverly portrayed flashbacks we ascertain that the pair of them are playing host to Donald’s old friend, Ray and his new young wife, Mona and that the foursome have spent the evening at a party. During this party, we are witness to the fact that Ray is prone to “putting it about a bit”, the recent receiver of his sexual shenanigans being the wife of the host. She is a willing participant, even managing a self satisfied smile when Donald comes across the two of them going at it hammer and tongs in a cloakroom, whilst rich hubby is in a nearby room. Poor old Donald. It’s apparent that sex, even with his wife, let alone anyone else, doesn’t feature large in his life. Is his obvious envy at his friend’s accomplishments enough to commit a crime?
It is the journey home, when the two couples have to ditch the car and traipse through a blizzard, losing Ray in the process, that we assume the thriller aspect of the piece is being realised. Except that this isn’t a whodunit at all. The clues are there; a huge image of the iris of an eye at the beginning, Ingrid’s constant scrutiny of her husband and eyes featuring in the final few moments. This is a play about what people see or don’t see, perceive or chose not to. Fine enough in itself, but disappointing if you’ve taken at face value that The Red Barn is meant to be a psychological thriller. It wasn’t until reading Le Main after seeing the play, that I realised this terminology, certainly as far as the book is concerned, is correct. So why doesn’t it work here at The Lyttleton, when all the correct pieces are there and put into place by the hot young director Robert Icke?
I think the mistake is that it has been made into a play at all. It would work so much better as a movie. In fact, the way Bunny Christie has designed The Red Barn, by making the surrounding black panels contract and expand so our eyes are focused on a central image, is very much like a cinema screen. A very clever concept, that helps the continual shift in location and portrays the opening snow sequence brilliantly.
Alongside Mark Strong are Hope Davis as his wife, Ingrid, Nigel Whitmey playing Ray and Elizabeth Debicki portraying Mona. Accomplished actors as they are, by the end of the play I had lost all interest as to what would become of any of them.