A starkly cold Kensal Rise flat, heated only by the thin bare bars of an electric fire. Outside a battlement of tenement buildings, the only sign of life – lights switching off and on in a ghostly silent fashion in this revival of David Hare’s Skylight, directed by Stephen Daldry. Paul Arditti and Paul Englishby give us a cacophony of sound to match Bob Crowley’s detailed set and Natasha Katz’ lighting. Anyone who lives in a flat like this or an environment like this, will recognize the realism the synthesis of design brings, although in the play’s first few opening moments, the sound-scape has the emotional punch of a film and makes one recall Patrice Chereau’s London in Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy.
In fact, watching the 1990s set drama, which explores the passion and politics between ex-lovers Thatcherism and self made restaurateur Tom Sergeant [Bill Nighy] and self sacrificing teacher Kyra Hollis [Carey Mulligan], which takes place in Kyra’s flat a year after Tom’s wife’s death, one unconsciously digs into other plays, novels or films exploring similar themes.
For me it was impossible not to think of Karel Reisz’ filmed version of Terence Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea and compare the jobless downfallen heroine who, like Kyra, is bullied by her husband and current lover in the realms of her own flat. Kyra seems a natural heir to this heroine as she does to the female protagonist in Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, although for her the social workers and other civil servants were the enemy, whereas in Hare’s play, they are the victims, slandered and lauded by journalists, rich people and politicians alike [this speech given by Kyra elicits a nightly round of applause from the audience]. One can also start thinking about Life is Sweet [Mike Leigh] and My Beautiful Launderette [Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi] both in their differing ways, adhering to certain values of social realism whilst exploring class reaction, the outcomes of Thatcher’s belief in free markets and monetarism, the small state and the responsibility and freedom of the individual to shape their own lives.
But David Hare’s play reaches beyond the 1990s and John Major’s government. Its themes are universal and centres on two people whose seeming mutual guilt over an affair strives to bring them together, despite their political variances. Tom can’t stand what he sees as Kyra’s martyrdom- living- in his eyes unnecessarily- in a flat that makes life difficult. For him it is a subconscious sign of guilt over their affair and the final admission that she betrayed his wife. For Kyra it is no such thing, only that it exemplifies the fact that people are driven to help others [in this case teaching poor children] by a need to feel useful. And that it is unhelpful to look for any other motive beyond that and that, more importantly, the motive does not matter- what right have the self made and the rich to scorn those who are busy clearing the detritus from society’s drains- detritus it might said, that was accumulated through Thatcher’s individualist policies? For her part Kyra cannot stand Tom’s behavior towards his driver- treating people as though they are not human, or his selfish need to reclaim Kyra’s love- he cannot stand the fact Kyra can love so many others [the boy she gets up early for to give him extra coaching] and not him..Tom’s response towards this emotionality is to stride around Kyra’s flat as though he owns it and to bellow out his mode of right wing scorn.
These opposing values leads the Guardian’s Susannah Clapp to write that there is a certain ‘sentimental feminism- an unexamined identification of good works with the female, and bullying with the bloke.’ But as she later concedes and is rightly illustrated in the play, this is not totally so. Tom rightly observes that Kyra, whilst living in a poor area and helping those she thinks needs help, cannot engage with the outer world as she refuses to own a TV or read a newspaper [it makes her angry and sad]. Kyra is not sentimental but, like everyone, flawed and chooses the battles she knows she can fight and try and win- rather than the ones she reads or hears about and can only feel helpless and powerless over. And there is contradiction with Tom- seemingly a hardened individualist but cut up by the guilt he feels towards his wife, which he remarks, does not seem to touch Kyra who seems continually ‘at peace’. The play does seem to ask who is the more real and the most willing to engage with themselves and the world and our sympathies fly back and forth.
Besides sentimental feminism still seems an important character in the arts. From Jane Eyre to Dorothea in Middlemarch to her vastly poorer relation Mary in Downton Abbey to Something to Tell You [Hanif Kurieshi] where one female of a certain kind has metamorphosed into a bean eating living off the land social worker- this kind of woman seems a permanent fixture in our cultural landscapes. Just as the bullying men are. But the importance is how much these stock figures are taken and implored with a bit of realism so that the clichés are imploded and exploded [as they are in Something to tell You] and Skylight does crack open these sexist myths. Not least with the invention of Tom’s flamboyant son Edward [Matthew Beard] who, making an appearance at the top and tail end of the play, signifies the new and better informed values of a younger generation. He does much to appease his father’s bullying ways and draws a warmth out of Kyra that his father never could.
Stephen Daldry’s production speaks to today with our current housing crisis, strain on the social services [visit one and you will see what I mean] and the increasing problems faced by teachers and schools. Tom represents one way to live our lives, and Kyra another. Or do they? The paradox is that they each imbue paradoxes that contradict their main values.. the tragedy is that these paradoxes prevent them from overcoming their differences [ and not the differences themselves] and therefore helping each other to come to new conclusions of thought. It’s this that gives the play its real food for thought.
Until 23 August. Box office: 0844 482 5120