England has produced few writers for stage with such a gift for political expression as David Hare, and when he is on form he has the touch of the genius about him. The craft of drawing down dusty and often hollow political talking points from the rarified echo-chambers in which they spend much of their time to the dinner tables and pub lounges of regular folk is a business fraught with dangers. Political theatre of this type can be didactic, proselytising, and yes, even propagandising. But Hare breathes life into the realm of the pamphleteer time and time again, and more often than not makes entertaining and compelling the things that smoke above the heads of most of us masquerading as political philosophy and academe.
Skylight is a play that goes far beyond the heroes and villains of recent noble offerings such as Ken Loach’s much-lauded movie I, Daniel Blake for instance. This is too a script that fuses seamlessly the patterns politics forces upon common lives with the other stuff in those lives, but here is visible the complications on offer to people who make their own decisions rather than people who are at the whim of a system. This is a story of typically complicated people, leading typically complicated lives, built upon messy motives. It is a story about people, but the political heart beats loud.
Skylight is ostensibly a kitchen sink drama – and director Tamara Harvey wisely keeps the action in this tradition – you know at some point a plate will be smashed as anger boils over, or angry hands will slam upon the formica table top, and so here we have versions of this. Kyra lives a recognisable life in a familiar setting – this is Hare the Englishman using the scenery of the “angry young men” to present to us an angry middle-aged man and the girl twenty years his junior who seems to have untangled herself from his family. It is obvious from the off the next two hours will unravel the secrets that bind Kyra and Tom, unroll their pasts before us, and in here is the politics, the mess. It is no surprise Tom and Kyra had an affair, but some of the other revelations are a little less formulaic, a little less morally clear. The deeper you delve into the backstory, the more murky things become, the more strained our sympathies, and, counter-intuitively perhaps, the more acute our sympathies also.
Skylight is a play about honesty, about grief, about morality, but it is also a play about two people trying to figure out who it is they are supposed to be. Kyra has run away from the mess she was a party to – a surrogate family member and employee of Tom’s restaurant business (and soon-to-be empire) who ended up in his bed – and in her present existence she is both martyr and coward. She is perhaps the most strikingly crafty portrayal of white liberalism any white liberal playwright has dared to put on stage. One assumes Kyra will be our moral guide through this storm, but it’s tough to feel wholly comfortable with where we end up. Jeany Spark delivers a steady performance through this shift – she is never a villain, never one to which you want to boo or hiss, but any initial warmth chills out.
In contrast, Tom grows in stature. He is pathetic, he is dated, he never wavers from his privileged position of middle-aged rich white man, but he is a figure who crumbles with honesty. Jay Villiers gives a beefy performance, although at times it is not always so easy to recognise the charm that at one point must have won over young Kyra. But this is a witty play, and when Villiers and Spark hit their stride they lift the razor-sharp script up into a very special place indeed. Skylight is a play that treats politics as a human theme, as an organic mechanism that necessarily grows out from between the cracks where real people walk. Have Tom and Kyra lost their respective ways? Is it right that they are given an opportunity of happiness, considering the misery they have caused? Do we not live in an age where the political firepit is now lowered down upon us, rather than burns perilously under our feet? Lines such as “bankers rule the world nowadays” and “it’s not enough for the rich to make money anymore, now they have to be thanked for it” may seem like glib zingers, but in the hands of a writer like Hare, and even a director like Harvey, they are tidbits, they are hors d’oeuvre for the main course which is decidedly more rich to the palate.
When the National revived Skylight in 2014 with Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan as Tom and Kyra, Stephen Daldry’s version received middling reviews, reviews that suggested the play focussed more on the relationships than the politics. But a lot has happened since 2014, and it is now difficult to think of a more vital play on stage anywhere in Britain. Tamara Harvey has picked the right play for the right time, and realised that politics and love are very much the same thing.
Listen to Tamara Harvey on Off/Script, Wales Arts Review’s new half hour interview podcast here.