Review of The Red Barn at the National Theatre
Just as you shouldn't come out of a musical humming the sets, you'd hope that a stage thriller might provide more thrills than just a scene change. But it's virtually impossible to talk about The Red Barn, a slow but not very tense new psychological thriller set in 1960s Connecticut and written by David Hare from a novel by Geroges Simenon called La Main, without mentioning how gobsmacking the design is.
Following on from the innovative theatre work of Robert Lepage and Ivo van Hove, director Robert Ickle and his designer Bunny Christie inherit their mantle of disorienting us with a transformative way of creating stage pictures. But even as you marvel at all of this, it has to be said that the effect is also oddly distancing; you're keenly aware of being alternately impressed and manipulated, rather than directly involved.
The stage comprises a series of floating boxes and apertures, through which we are invited to look in on a not-very-interesting story of a man who has gone missing in a blizzard and the affair that then follows between his wife and the husband of the couple who were with them at the time. The opening minutes of the show, set in the blizzard and its aftermath, are staged with thrilling stagecraft, for which credit is also due to Paule Constable's stunningly atmospheric lighting, Tom Gibbons's sound design and Tim Reid's video projections.
The set creates a sense of wonder, and keeps outdoing itself; just when you think there are no more surprises possible, it springs one right at the end that's another coup de theatre. It's a pity, though, that the story it has to tell is so pedestrian. Icke charges it up with a sense of grave, moody menace, and his actors led by Mark Strong as the man pursuing an affair with Elizabeth Debicki's willowy widow while his devoted wife played by Hope Davis looks on, are universally superb.
But I was gripped more by the sets than the action.
What the Press Said...
"Features subtle performances from Mark Strong and Elizabeth Debicki, but the cinematic design upstages the drama."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Mark Strong excels as a man in mountingly explosive recoil from the dull life he now discovers he chose not from principle but from a cowardly need for protection. An unbroken 110 minutes, well worth catching."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"The design is handsome and the performances are finely tuned, but The Red Barn lacks force."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard