Wednesday, February 22, 2017

REVIEW: Skylight (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

David Hare's Skylight debuted 22 years ago, but the socio-political themes the playwright addresses in the text are just as relevant today, if not more so. The two main characters (there is a third, but he is largely peripheral) represent the chasm between the two main attitudes toward society in British life - empathy and apathy.

East End school teacher Kyra is a forthright defender of the underdog, the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. She teaches difficult children in a difficult school in a difficult part of London because she believes she is doing good, that she is improving their lives and so, by association, is making the most of her own.

However, moneyed restaurateur Tom is in denial about how much good Kyra can do, and whether she really means what she says or whether she is holding herself back through some form of self-piteous punishment. Kyra lives in a freezing cold flat in Kensal Rise and seems relatively happy there, insisting that this way of living is really quite normal. Tom refuses to believe that is the case, and pushes Kyra to make more of herself, her intellect and her talents, to apply herself to self-improvement rather than that of others less fortunate than her.

It's all very worthy writing from Hare, who is renowned for his socially aware plays, but in effect the characters are mere mouthpieces for the ethical debate he wants to present the audience with. Skylight is very much a thematic character piece rather than a play of incident. Indeed, the only things that really happen during the play is that an uneaten meal is cooked, and there's a sex scene, which thankfully takes place between Acts. Everything the characters talk about happened in the past, and it is the effect and impact of the past upon their state of being now which is the focus of Hare's play. It makes for wordy, challenging, sometimes stodgy drama which never lets you forget it's a play on a stage in a theatre. The text is pretty dense, sometimes treated quite lightly, but for the most part it's laid on thick and spread generously.

There's a mystery for the audience from the outset in trying to work out the relationship between these people. There's obviously some sort of history between them, but it takes a little while for the play to unfurl and fill in the blanks. Why is 18-year-old Edward visiting this thirtysomething woman, bringing gifts of lager and rap records? Why does Edward plead with her to return to the family home, despite Kyra obviously not being his mother or sister? It's only when Edward's father Tom visits her later on that we see the truth of these characters' backgrounds, and suddenly, Wizard of Oz-like, the world we're watching goes Technicolour.

Jeany Spark as Kyra and Oscar
Batterham as Edward
The characters are well drawn and coloured in, but brought to life by the performers. Jeany Spark brings a quiet bemusement to Kyra, who in Act 1 is to all intents and purposes merely a woman who listens to men talk at her. She has moments of explosive fury (watch out, kitchen drawer!) where she lashes out against the diatribes and slights being directed at her and her way of life, but it isn't until Act 2 that Kyra's true character really comes out of its shell.

Jay Villiers is marvellous as the post-yuppie era businessman who hankers after the days of the 1980s when the banks gave out loans like sweeties and the profit rolled in faster than it could be spent. Villiers brings a lovely layer of buffoonery to Tom (I love how he plonks himself down on Kyra's sofa in just the way described by his son Edward earlier in the play), which helps to dilute some of his class-based ranting. Hare has him spout through anger and frustration. There are words and sentences spoken here which no regular human being would ever say in the course of an evening's casual conversation - this adds to the awareness that this is very much a traditional play you're watching, where the writer has something to say and you're not going to be able to miss what that is. Skylight is like a work by Ibsen or Priestley - what it has to say is wrote large and unsubtly, and although the audience can form its own reaction, it is very definitely being told things, rather than asked to interpret.

Oscar Batterham makes for an endearing Edward, topping and tailing the play with youthful joie de vivre, popping his feet on the sofa and heedlessly sloshing tea on Kyra's carpet. Edward is perhaps the most likeable character in the play. He is a teenager who has lost his mother to cancer and whose father seems to be distancing himself from him at a time when they really ought to be pulling together to tackle their shared grief. Kyra - whose history with the family is key - is the one person that both Edward and Tom feel can help put their lives back on track, but Kyra has a new life and is very reluctant to let it go.

Kyra and Tom are not the most likeable characters. Both are quite headstrong, Tom outwardly so. Kyra is stubborn, despite her virtuous lifestyle - after all, she was having an affair with the married man whose home she'd shared for six years, and when his wife Alice found out, she bailed out within the hour, without a word. That decision deeply affected Tom and his son, and you can't help feeling there was an element of cowardice in Kyra's retreat which could have been handled better.

James Perkins's stunning set

James Perkins's beautiful set stands Kyra's one-bedroom flat on an ocean of coloured breeze blocks which, as they reach up the wall at the back of the stage, become the windows of the surrounding tower blocks of Kensal Rise, lit from within, flicking off and on. It's taken the kernel of Bob Crowley's design for the National Theatre's 2014 production, but pushed it further, into fresher and better territory. There's also a working kitchen which allows Kyra to cook an entire spaghetti bolognese during the course of Act 1 which will undoubtedly make you feel hungry at the interval (a Magnum Classic doesn't quite do the job after smelling fried onions!).

However, Kyra has no television, and does not read the newspapers, because she says exposing herself to "the news" simply makes her angry, because it is full of people she doesn't relate to, unpleasant people who do not reflect the real people she meets in her own life, who are generally nice and kind and friendly. If ever there was a part of Hare's play which speaks louder today than it did 20 years ago, it's this. Social media has swamped public awareness of the bad things going on in the world, and many users are now suffering from an over-exposure and exhaustion which is turning them off. Every time we go to Twitter or Facebook, switch on the news or pick up a newspaper, it's invariably bad news. It's a depressing time to be consuming current affairs, but back in the 1990s, when things were much less celebrity-focused, much less reactionary, much less apocalyptic, Kyra was feeling the same way. If she couldn't cope with Blur vs Oasis, royal divorces and Dolly the sheep, then she'd probably implode in 2017!

It's often argued that a character should have changed in some way between the beginning and the end of a drama. For it to be satisfying for the audience, the people they're watching should have altered their opinion or situation or state of being in some way so that we can tell a story has taken place. In Skylight, arguably, the characters resolutely do not change. Kyra and Tom certainly thrash out ideologies in between, but neither of them change, and by the end of the play, little at all has changed. Kyra refuses to leave behind the new life she's built for herself, and so Tom and Edward's lives do not change either. It is up to the men to make their lives as good as they can be without Kyra, as she has without them. The play ends on a light-hearted high when Edward brings Kyra a posh take-out breakfast, but essentially nobody is any happier than they were at the top of the play. They might even be worse off.

Not an overly rewarding play for the heart and soul then, but certainly one that tackles issues of deprivation, charity, selflessness, enterprise, grief and self-worth. It's a play that makes you think. It's a spotlight on opposing ideologies which some might find engrossing, others might find a little overbearing.

The stats
Writer: David Hare
Director: Tamara Harvey
Cast: Jeany Spark (Kyra); Oscar Batterham (Edward); Jay Villiers (Tom)
Performed at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, between February 9th and March 4th, 2017. Performance reviewed: February 21st, 2017.

Tamara Harvey previews Skylight (retrieved Feb 22 2017)
Cast previews Skylight (retrieved Feb 22 2017)
Tamara Harvey interviews David Hare (retrieved Feb 22 2017)

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