David Hare’s 1995 play Skylight is an observation on post-Thatcher Britain of the time, centred on the attempted rekindling of a May-December relationship. In a country divided down the line of hard-nosed business ethics and public-minded policies, Hare puts his couple on either side of the argument and prides his script in offering a balanced perspective of both points of view. This production directed by Dean Bryant unfortunately tips the scales and loses its potency in the process.
This staging has possibly surfaced at the Melbourne Theatre Company thanks to Stephen Daldry’s highly lauded National Theatre production of 2014 starring Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy. Seen on Australian cinema screens, this production was praised for its finely honed performances and intricacy of detail. Sadly, in the choices Bryant has made with this version, it’s more difficult to admire the story and subsequently the performances of the leads have also suffered.
Set in the East London tower block apartment of Kyra Hollis (Anna Samson), a schoolteacher is visited upon by her former lover and employer, restaurateur Tom Sergeant (Colin Friels). Kyra had been living with Tom’s family some years ago, but left after her affair with Tom was discovered by his wife. Now, his wife has passed away and Tom arrives without announcement to make fun of her meagre living standards and judge her lifestyle while talking of their former relationship and hinting at a desire to re-establish it.
It’s a wordy affair, full of persuasive argument for both sides, tearing down left-wing politics as effectively as it skewers capitalist conservativism. But somehow in this production Samson’s plummy Kyra makes her points most effectively, even through a forced characterisation that completely lacks naturalism. Friels’ delivery of Tom’s bullying dialogue lacks the requisite stylishness and subtlety to have impact. What could be sharply oblique digs instead feel like sucker punches. This is made all the more irritating by Bryant’s insistence that his cast bounce around the set like crazed pinballs. When delivering her most cogent speeches Samson moves her body through all points of the compass, bobbing up and down, jabbing in and out. While Friels version of the arrogant businessman never looks comfortable in the space, rather acquiescing to his former lover’s dominion. It all feels off-key.
Dale Ferguson’s spectacular five-storey set design while admirable and evocative of the location lacks purpose and ends up feeling simply ostentatious. The opportunity to make more of it through Matt Scott’s lighting seems to be abandoned after Act 1.
The play is bookended by the appearance of Tom’s son Edward (Toby Wallace), who is still hurt by Kyra having left his family home some years before. He feels like he has not only lost his mother, but a ‘big sister’ figure too and wants to know why she left his life. It adds some potency to Kyra’s decisions around her relationship with Tom, and Wallace makes the most of the stage time he is given delivering a warm interpretation of the lad, but ultimately these scenes feel unnecessary.
It is still possible to the see the potential of Hare’s play through the flaws in this production, though it felt underprepared on opening night, so perhaps this staging might mature to deliver a more urgent and pointed outcome over the course of its season. Certainly, the director and his leads are capable of much more effective work.