David Hare’s new play, The Red Barn, an adaptation of Georges Simenon’s novel La Main, opens with Ingrid Dodd (Hope Davis) sat in an optician’s chair and passing her eye test with flying colours. “You see everything,” the optician tells her, and he’s not wrong. “She is my consciousness. She knows what I’ve thought before I’ve thought it,” says Donald (Mark Strong), her husband of almost two decades, and the things that they both see, or realise they’ve failed to see, are behind much of the increasingly tense next 110 minutes.
Donald is a man who, by his own admission, has lived his whole life with the handbrake on. Too scared to move from his small home town to New York to fulfil his academic ability, he stays and marries a woman who claims she is attracted to his inability to surprise her. One night they are fighting their way back home through a snow storm with Ray (Nigel Whitmey) and Mona Sanders (Elizabeth Debicki), a couple with whom they’ve just been at a party. Ray gets lost in the blizzard. Or does he? Donald goes back out to try and find him. Or does he? Mona seems worried. Or does she? Ingrid observes it all.
Bunny Christie’s innovative set design (hardly surprising from the woman behind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) uses a series of black screens to open and shut like a camera aperture on different scenes, never revealing the full stage but always keeping Donald tightly boxed in. Robert Icke’s now trademark cinematic direction (see Oresteia and 1984) takes in slow-motion acting, phone-call voiceovers and Hitchcockian sound. The early snow-storm scene, caught in close to 16:9 by Christie’s set, is particularly stunning.
Not much more can be said about the plot for fear of spoiling it, but as that aperture snaps through more scenes than most playwrights and directors manage over three plays, politely menacing versions of jealousy, regret and anger stake out their ground, supported by a host of strong performances, with even minor characters such as Oliver Alvin-Wilson’s Lieutenant Olsen proving fully realised and utterly memorable.
“The criminal is often less guilty than the victim,” Simenon once said. Everyone is guilty of something here, but everyone is also a victim. And Hare, Icke and Christie are guilty of contributing to yet another noteworthy piece of theatre.
Runs until January 17