The Red Barn

If you think The Red Barn will be a nice relaxing audience experience think again and then have another think. A series of pervasive audio-visual effects combine with constrained dialogue to keep you on-guard and in a state of intense concentration.

As lifelong friend Ray Sanders (Nigel Whitmey) gets lost in the blizzard, Donald’s life is mentally unravelled

The opening scene of David Hare’s new play, based on Georges Simenon’s novel Le Main, explodes onto the theatrical canvas. The projection of a blinding snowstorm is accompanied by a cacophony of wind. The cast shout to be heard as lamps light their way to the dimly lit, secluded house belonging to Ingrid (Hope Davis) and Donald Dodd (Mark Strong) and which serves as the prime location for much of the piece. As lifelong friend Ray Sanders (Nigel Whitmey) gets lost in the blizzard, Donald’s life is mentally unravelled through a nuanced performance from Strong. Chief architect of his demise is Mona Sanders (Elizabeth Debicki) as the ménage à trios becomes increasingly unsustainable.

The direction is highly stylised down to the finest detail. Robert Icke uses multimedia effects, sliding scenery to create camera-style profiles, camera flashbulbs, phonecalls in pitch darkness and a great deal of set moves and changes. Unlike productions such as People, Places, Things or Icke’s direction of 1984 these aren’t aggressively modern and fit in with the 1950s’ aesthetic, matching the technology of the times. Sometimes it is just distracting, almost patronising though, especially early on as black sliding panels narrow the view to Donald staring at Mona’s hand; highlighted later as being of particular significance. However, there are moments of brilliance, when Strong walks side-on through several rooms at a party and each room lights up in turn and the music intensifies towards a moment of clarity, it looks very classy indeed.

The screenplay is far too capable to have such constant adornment. It should allow Strong to noticeably change and crack without distraction. This hinges on a captivating monologue in which he airs his inferiority complex to Mona in her bright-white Manhattan apartment. A frosty and contemplative approach to the story provides few opportunities for humour. Donald’s wife Ingrid is the unlikely source of mirth as her personality is used to emasculate him. Hope Davis’ drawling calculation is fascinating to watch as she sets out so dry and bland.

The final act doesn’t quite feel like the logical conclusion to the events described, although again the lighting, set and music all desperately try to make it inevitable. The play is beautifully placed into the post-war period with the costumes, set-furnishing and situations are all compelling, as are the performances – despite a deliberately slow start. 

Reviews by George Meixner

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The Blurb

Connecticut, 1969.

On their way back from a party, two couples struggle home through the snow. Not everyone arrives safely...

With a cast including Mark Strong (A View from the Bridge) and Hope Davis (God of Carnage) and Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager).