Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 2, 2015
Skylight by David Hare. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Designed by Bob Crowley. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Paul Arditti. Composer Paul Englishby. Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bill Nighy, Matthew Beard.
Seeing Kyra maintain that shield from second to second is the chief joy to be found in the Stephen Daldrydirected revival of David Hare's Skylight that just opened at the John Golden. Carey Mulligan, the performer playing her, has orchestrated a vibrant symphony of feeling for this woman who's caught between the heart and the head in two different ways. The thrilling, rumbling bass background is the political landscape of the U.K. during the mid 1990s, when the play is set (it premiered in 1995 and was seen on Broadway a year later), which documents the slowly expanding ranks of the less advantaged minorities, about whom the more money-minded upper classes don't care a whit. And the melody depicts, in lush but lilting tones, her own crumbled romance, but lingering yearnings for, one of that class's foremost representatives.
For six years, Kyra worked for and conducted an affair with the much-older Tom Sergeant, an especially enterprising restaurateur. But this was no ordinary fling: Kyra so integrated herself into Tom's family, even becoming close friends with his wife, Alice, that she had to flee the instant Alice discovered what was really going on. That was three years earlier, and since then, Alice has died, throwing Tom and their son, Edward, into emotional turmoil that apparently only Kyra can remedy. But Kyra, who came from a family of means and now teaches adolescents at the opposite end of the economic spectrum, is no longer so sure that Tom, who built himself up from nothing and could be considered to have forgotten where he came from, is the right match for her.
This war plays out continuously on Mulligan's face and in her voice as Kyra must address the increasingly unsettling nudges back toward her past, first during a visit from Edward (a fine Matthew Beard) and later when Tom (Bill Nighy) arrives himself for the evening and is in no great hurry to depart. Beneath the smile, or at least the welcoming visage, that her character can easily adopt, Mulligan makes no attempt to hide the bitter regret that has made Kyra the person she now is. But rather than seeming complicated, Kyra registers as only the natural outgrowth of the circumstances she's endured. So during her intermittent flashes of despair, rage, or even lust, we're startled but not surprised. We always know exactly who Kyra is and what's brought her here; Mulligan is simply, and beautifully, peeling away the layers.
There are certainly many to peel. Even more than with many of his other plays, Hare blends in Skylight the epic importance of the world outside with the intimate troubles of its avatars indoors, and in so doing imbues with greater significance both the political and the personal. There's not a hint of straining as Hare sets up the conflict between the lower and the upper, between the Labour and the Conservativeconflicts that ring with more chilling echoes in present-day America than they probably did here 20 years ago. And no nuances are lost in Daldry's taut staging, set on the oppressively pedestrian high-rise apartment set by Bob Crowley that Natasha Katz has hauntingly lit, as they tilt about their pasts and futures, their potential, and their still-smoldering affection for each other, all of which reflect, with boldness and insight, on the external struggles they're momentarily escaping.
Nighy, however, is not always as equal a combatant for Kyra as one might wish. He's carved into Tom a fascinating playfulness that manifests itself in ways both large (his ongoing pestering of Kyra about her choices of apartment and cheese) and small (his repeated one-footed kick of a chair), and that suggests the rich man's roots may not be beyond salvaging after all. And Nighy does invest Tom with a compelling fragility of both body and mind that appears when you least expect it to. But foremost among his attitude is a too-crisp distance that renders less as confidence (which would be sensible) than indifference (which isn't quite), and makes it more difficult to care about this man who needs to ache just as much as Kyra, if in different ways. Forget whether Tom loves himself. You're never quite sure he even believes in himself, so how can you?
Because Mulligan insists you love and believe in Kyra, and becauseon some levelshe still loves and believes in Tom, the imbalance is hardly a critical one. Even if this Skylight isn't a perfectly matched power play, it's an incisive study of one woman as she strives to expiate her guilt of falling short in the two areas that have most defined her life. Maybe she, like society, will never succeed. But Mulligan makes each of Kyra's failures fascinating and luminous tributes to the broad goals we all long to achieve and the humanity that so often gets in the way.