A trip to see a new play at the National is always eagerly anticipated. When that new play is written by David Hare, is based on a Georges Simenon novel (Le Main) and stars the likes of Mark Strong and Elizabeth Debicki (recently seen on TV in The Night Manager) that anticipation is at a high. The premise of the story is also encouraging. Why did a 45-year old, seemingly happily married father of two fail to look for an old friend lost in a snowdrift? Does he envy a man, who was able to leave their small town for Manhattan, and make a success of his career despite a limited talent? Or is it that he coverts his wife?
These are all questions that offer dramatic possibility. Mark Strong does a good job of playing the frustrated Donald, and David Hare’s narrative leaves us constantly asking ourselves as to who is in control. Is it Donald, whose choices have caused the tragedy, Mona (Debicki), the widow who is able to effortlessly manipulate men, or Donald’s wife, who knows so much of what is going on? It is this shift in the ascendancy of the characters that gives the play some strength. Where the production suffers however is in its difficulty in its lapses in dramatic tension and in ultimately making us care about any of the characters. The latter issue may not matter, in that this is an impressive attempt to bring a film noir-type story to the theatre, and Donald is an interesting anti-thesis of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. In some ways this is a more oblique tale of manipulation along the lines of Double Indemnity, but while David Hare would usually stand comparison with the writers of that film screenplay (Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler), that is not the case here. Without greater depth to the characterization we are left having to fill in just too many blanks and are left with a curious but uncompelling narrative in a very stylish setting.
The setting is really the triumph of this production. The use of gradually expanding apertures to slowly reveal the action helps that cinematic feel, and the set designs give the perfect mid-50’s period feel; especially in Mona’s apartment. We are, however, left questioning whether the story would have been more effectively told on the big screen rather than in a theatre, and the use of “voices off” does highlight the restrictions of this being told on stage. Simenon believed that novels should be read in a single sitting, and putting the play on in one act means that Hare is able to stay true to that idea; although at 2 hours it does seem a little long to lack an interval. Ultimately the issues for the production may be down to ones of style over substance, and that Hare may have been better served by writing a screenplay.