This weekend I went to see David Hare’s Skylight at ACT. It’s a superb production - moving, riveting, engrossing. It pulled me in so strongly that when the lights came up at the end I got that brief jolt of being returned from the play’s reality to my own. It’s not often that you walk out of a theater and tell yourself “That production could not have been better” but that’s the case with this one.
Hare’s play (first produced in London in 1995) concerns the reuniting of two former lovers after a few years apart. The woman, Kyra, is a school teacher in her late thirties living in a run-down and very cold apartment in a desolate area of North London. The man is Tom, a wealthy and successful restauranteur about twenty years her senior. They come together for the night but are driven apart the next day by both their differences and their shared past. There is also Edward, Tom’s son by his wife Alice. Alice is not a character in this play, but she is a presence in it. The events onstage take place a year after her death from cancer and a few years after her discovery of Tom and Kyra’s affair. It’s out of this mundane, even trite, material that Hare has fashioned his magnificent play.
Although Hare is mostly thought of as a political playwright, Skylight is more intimate and personal than much of his other work. Unlike his more epic plays (Fanshen, A Map of the World) this is a chamber piece, a duet. The two ex-lovers take center stage; Edward appears only at the beginning and briefly at the end. At the root of every decent playwright - no matter how inspired by politics or current events or religion or, even, just the desire for money - is the commitment to and love of the brute facticity of theater: a live actor before an audience creating an entirely new reality. There’s magic in that, and one senses that the sparseness of the material may very well have been inspiring to Hare. Love, death, grief, anger, betrayal, hope, rage - the gamut of human emotions pass between these two characters. They contain the world.
Still, the political is there. Kyra is a teacher at a school in one of London’s poorer and more violent neighborhoods. She first met Tom when she was hired to work in one of his restaurants, soon Tom and Alice take her into their home, and Tom, ultimately, to his bed. Kyra’s life became one of ease and affluence, only the finest things. Her breakup with Tom led her into a hard scrabble existence but one of which she is defiantly proud. At one point she goes on a glorious rant about “those right-wing fuckers” in parliament and the media who chatter about what the poor need to do to improve their lot but never actually do anything to help them. After almost a quarter century its power, relevance, and contempt are still fresh. Elinor Gunn’s performance Kyra is flawless. She is both deeply vulnerable and yet hard as steel at the core. Kyra is a woman who says “yes” to the world (Tom reproaches her for this) but she’s at the age in life when events and experience begin to persuade one of the wisdom of saying “no.” Tom loves her and she almost can’t help but respond to that love; not because he’s so wonderful, but because love is.
On a side note, I couldn’t help but notice that if Kyra had been played a little colder and more archly (and I’m glad Gunn didn't play her that way) it would have brought out the influence on this play, conscious or not, of Noël Coward. Now I don’t know if Hare would acknowledge that influence or if he even likes Coward’s work, but despite the politics and coarse language of Skylight there are some distinctly Coward-esque aspects to the story - old lovers meet, verbal sparring, potential reuniting, bittersweet endings, etc. Several times I couldn't help thinking of Elyot and Amanda in Coward's Private Lives (1930) - but that may just be me.
The moment Daniel Gerroll walks onstage as Tom he dominates the play. Brash, complaining, needy, charming, undeniably fun, pushy - Tom is all those things and we are fascinated by him. He’s in many ways the quintessentially successful businessman of Thatcher’s era - and ours, too. He’s completely unpretentious, hard working, sympathetic and yet possessed of a disturbing callousness and indifference to others. Though even that he manages to make charming. When Kyra tells him that he needs to listen to women if he hopes to bed them, he groans and retorts that listening “is halfway to begging.” Tom is not a larger-than-life character such as Falstaff or Cyrano de Bergerac but there is an abundance to him - perhaps it’s merely the energy and élan vital of the successful entrepreneur - that makes him an irresistible figure. Gerroll's performance is fantastic. This is a role that isn’t just played - it needs to be filled, the actor needs to possess a certain heft to pull it off. And Gerroll does that to perfection. He’s so convincing that at one point, while watching Tom walking around Kyra’s apartment, I thought to myself “Yeah, you know that guy’s got another piece of ass on the side” and then realized “Oh, wait, he doesn’t actually exist.”
Michael Monicatti, in his professional stage debut, brings a wonderful energy and appeal to the role of Edward. My one gripe: I wish he wouldn’t rush his lines. There’s a music to Hare’s language (yet another similarity with Coward) and slowing the delivery down a bit will bring it out. Julia Hayes Welch did an excellent job with the set; she uses thin copper piping to frame the stage as well as remind us of the gritty nature of the neighborhood Kyra lives in. And, finally, John Langs is to be commended for his outstanding direction of this play. Everything seems to come off effortlessly - which we all know usually requires a back-breaking amount of work to achieve.
Skylight will play at ACT until September 30, so you all have plenty of time to go get tickets.