David Hare’s play now nearly of twenty years vintage feels but a day older. Skylight was written after a decade of Thatcher-induced mutually assured destruction and a generation of turgid Tory-induced political stupor. In 1995 the play represented a call to arms for the embattled, oppressed and already battle-hardened worthies. These were not dignitaries but those who lived a meaningful life of worth within society; whether as a social worker, carer or Skylight’s East Ham comprehensive teacher, Kyra (Carey Mulligan.) Skylight is a conscious rebellion against the prioritisation of that elusive entrepreneurial esprit de corps, which so motivated a conveyor belt of go-getting, city-slicking high achievers: the political progeny of their day. Men trapped by an insatiable lust for satisfaction within a cascading apotheosis of chrome and glass elevation. Demi-gods, they floated high into the aether on a cushion of stocks, shares and IPOs, surveying the ants’ nest of aforementioned worthies from the celestial echelons of a Lloyd’s Building.
The ever suited though not bespectacled Bill Nighy reprises the role of Tom Sergeant, a character he first played in 1997, and is the living embodiment of this neo-Tory ideal. Living, as we do, in a collective dawn of enlightenment, the post-New Labour epoch of Coalition penitence, Nighy’s Sergeant should stomp the stage as a dining table dinosaur, resigned to the history books like a Michael Portillo Great British Railway Journey or a flaxen haired hippy forever stoned in the parks of 1969. There is more than a semblance of a tiggerish, borderline Jaggerish, buoyancy of step in the ADHD (not LSD) trippings of Nighy onstage. From the orbit of the arms to the constant prowling management of Kyra’s tiny flat, Nighy stoops, dashes and dances around his carefully curated micro-environment. He is the nightmare child forever expending his cornucopia of energy bristling with bongos in a symphony of Sympathy for the Devil at the back of one of Kyra’s algebra classes. Just as Mick can resurface at Hyde Park in 2013, sporting the white dress of forty-five years earlier, spewing Romantic poetry and foregoing LSE style ergonomics, so too can Bill, as he rips on the self-same pin-stripes of suit and toes the party line of Thatcherite principles. Both are archive footage; a last hurrah for an outdated age. Yet immortal, invisible and certainly not god only wise; their relevance is startling.
Playwright, Hare, in a rare interview during the interval of the National Theatre Live broadcast, celebrating the contemporary resonances of his work beyond the ten year longevity threshold, ascribed its relevance to politics. For fifteen years of Thatcher and Major Tory majority, read four years of Conservative/Liberal Democrat swooning and swindling. Though Hare’s masterpiece has stood the test of time, the playwright’s theory feels strangely outdated. Hare’s viewpoint hearkens back to the glory days of partisan, right wing versus left wing ideological opposition and the battlefield of the oppressors and the oppressed. Looking around at an audience of nonagenarians and nans, it is hard to see an irksome fire stirring in hearts beating red with anti-coalition sentiment. Look beyond the well-to-do narcissism of the theatre-going classes and it is even harder to see the current political climate as anything other than a poor parody of the conditions in the 1980s and 1990s, which fuelled Hare’s ire. Thatcher shut the mines; Cameron taxed the spare bedrooms. The polite, political pointlessness of the present is but a pale reflection of the extremes of the past. History will look back on the current crop of Westminster school boys with an apathetic eye due to the self-righteous squabbling of pompous public school boys with nothing better to do than run a country inadequately.
The enduring quality of the play is not testament to its encapsulation of a political mood, but the sheer brilliance of character creation. Hare set out to write a play, a love story with two characters whose existence is contained within one room, a context which he had overlooked before Skylight. This he achieved with unrivalled success. The careers of Hare and Nighy seem intrinsically intertwined; they have now worked together on ten ventures, ranging from stage to screen and back again. Hare cast Nighy in his first romantic lead, launching Bill the heartthrob and in return Nighy is the actor who has realised some of Hare’s best creations. It is a career partnership which reaches its zenith in Nighy’s return to the role of Sergeant. Skylight is no two man show though. Carey Mulligan, who operates a tight and highly selective personal schedule, makes her West End debut in a modest, underplayed and genuine performance, true to the realism of mannerism and dialect so central to Hare’s ethos. Both are real people, who remind an audience of others, as opposed to overtly stylised manifestations: the product of theatre. Mulligan provides the perfect antidote to the bloated hysteria of the male lead. Although Nighy delivers the majority of the laughs, Mulligan is the foil to offset the encroaching enormity of Tom Sergeant as the actors balance each other adeptly onstage. There is even some electricity between the couple, despite the thirty-five year age gap and the askance glance of DiCaprio’s Gatsby.
The acting is flawless as the craftsmanship of director Stephen Daldry shines through in the fluctuating rally of dialogue that darts between Kyra and Tom. Nighy claims, either from modesty or senility, to have no recollection of his previous performance as Tom Sergeant and so the importance of director Daldry comes to the fore even more. The highlight is the “thanks” gently uttered under the breath by Nighy amidst a raging rant from Kyra who haphazardly compliments restaurateur entrepreneur, Tom, on his “good taste.” These captured breaths of conversation are crystallized in condensation on the icy pane of the frozen window on an exceptionally snowy December evening, offering a glaring insight into the slow thawing of a relationship gone cold. The stage set, expertly engineered by Bob Crowley, heightens the sense of flicking through the photo album of a couple’s rejuvenation, showcasing that a backdrop, however banal, can be raised to a living, breathing art installation. Only the kitchen is no mere pretty picture: Mulligan cooks, Nighy grates and the flickering flare of the electronic heater receives constant derision. Though compelling, it is neither the props nor the politics that will retain the supremacy of Skylight, but the attraction of two irreconcilable individuals drawn together in love and perfectly sketched by the magician, David Hare.
Photograph: John Haynes