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David Hare’s The Red Barn review at the National Theatre – ‘psychologically complex’

Mark Strong, Hope Davis, and Elizabeth Debicki in The Red Barn at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Mark Strong, Hope Davis, and Elizabeth Debicki in The Red Barn at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Jealousy runs through David Hare’s adaptation of Le Main, a little known psychological thriller by Georges Simenon – the creator of Maigret – like a blood red thread.

Set in the US, it starts, like many a thriller, on a dark night in an isolated farmhouse, with a snowstorm raging outside. Ray and Mona have been visiting their friends Donald and Ingrid in Connecticut and they’re all on their way back from a party, when Ray gets lost. They can’t find him and he doesn’t survive the night. Afterwards Donald finds himself drawn to the newly widowed Mona. It seems almost inevitable that they should embark on an affair; even Ingrid seems keen to steer the two of them towards one another.

Despite the menacing tone of the opening scenes, complete with howling wind and jump scares, The Red Barn is not about Ray’s death as much as the events it sets in motion. Hare has written an intelligent and subtle portrait of a quiet man coming undone. We’re in the territory of Updike or Richard Yates. Mark Strong’s Donald is the sort of man who gets forgotten if someone more charismatic is in the room. Even his name, Donald Dodd, is on the dull side. His envy of other men and the things they have, the things they do, gets horribly tangled up in his attraction to Mona.

Robert Icke, when on form, is a master of atmosphere and suspense. There were moments in his astonishing 2015 Oresteia that were almost unbearably tense: brilliant, physical, heart-in-mouth theatre. Here, while he deploys a number of similar techniques, they’re not as effective. The production is one of millimetre precision, but, aside from an intense and gripping final scene, it feels weirdly clinical. The performers all seem to move at three-quarter speed as if carefully counting their steps – Elizabeth Debicki’s Mona seems almost to glide.

Icke and designer Bunny Christie make much use of the letterbox quality of the Lyttelton. Moveable black screens create a series of apertures, allowing Icke to hone in on details and frame certain moments, or pull back for a dramatic reveal. This gives the production a cinematic feel; Icke, more than most directors, understands how to fuse cinema and theatre on stage. Hitchcock is an obvious reference point, but there’s Kubrick in here too (there are definite echoes of The Shining) and the striking opening image feels like a nod to Un Chien Andalou. But beautifully designed as it is, the various set changes require frequent fades to black and it does feel at times like the production, with its ticking clocks, is trying too hard to manufacture tension. There’s a line between hypnotic and soporific and the production often strays over it.

Debicki has a cool elegance as Mona, and Hope Davis is controlled yet ever so slightly askew as Ingrid, fascinatingly so. She’s a woman who sees things before her husband does. Mark Strong (sporting Don Draper’s hair) manages to damp down his innate charisma, so that when he does open up emotionally, it’s like he’s spilling something vital and private, but aside from these moments – and those potent final minutes – the production feels, perversely, passionless.

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Precise and psychologically complex, if somewhat clinical, portrait of an ordinary man's undoing