Jack Farmer looks at the current revival of David Hare’s political play.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that David Hare’s Skylight has been revived now, 18 years after its debut. At its heart, this is a play about inequality and the political values that excuse or condemn it. But Skylight is also a play about love, in which the personal and political are inseparably fused. I had the opportunity to see it when it was broadcast to cinemas on 17 July as part of NT Live – an experience which had the odd effect of making me feel both closer to, and further from, the action than usual.
Skylight is set in the tumbledown flat of Kyra, a school teacher in a tough London comprehensive. Her older ex-lover Tom, a rich restaurateur, seeks her out three years after their affair ended. Tom is reeling from the recent death of his wife, who refused to forgive him when she discovered his affair with Kyra. Tom’s guilt about the affair mingles with resentment towards Kyra for abruptly ending it. His hopes to rekindle their relationship struggle against the reality that their lives have taken very different paths since they last met.
A solicitor’s daughter, Kyra works night and day to help the deprived kids at her school. But her zeal is more than a little showy: she exudes an irritating air of moral superiority. She admits she is “no activist” and instead sees personal self-sacrifice as the best way to help her pupils.
Despite her flaws, she accurately picks apart the patronising paternalism of Tom, who doesn’t like women in his life making decisions without “consulting” him and leaves his driver to wait for him in the cold for hours without a second thought. Tom gives as goods as he gets in return, pricking Kyra’s pomposity with frequently hilarious sarcasm.
Hare’s sharp dialogue allows both characters to convincingly illuminate the flaws of the other, helped by excellent performances from Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy. The dusty stereotypes that underpin the pair – a naively idealistic young teacher and a cynical right-wing older man – are surpassed by the patient character-building of the script and performances. Nevertheless Matthew Beard almost steals the show, playing Tom’s teenage son with a well observed blend of petulance and unexpected emotional maturity, while cutely recycling some of Nighy’s mannerisms.
Kyra and Tom’s drama packs an emotional punch, but does little to illuminate the political issues they argue about. Kyra delivers a fiery defence of public sector workers, but in doing so describes the job of social workers as clearing out the drains of society. I was left with the impression of two characters who share a condescending view of people living in poverty, seeing them as shit to be shovelled.
Seeing Skylight in the cinema was a pleasant experience, as the intimacy of the drama was generally well captured by the cameras. I missed being in the same room as the actors, but this is still a good way to see a show that’s either fully booked or too expensive to see otherwise. Whichever way you look at it, Hare’s drama has lost none of its bite since the 1990s.
Skylight is at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 23 August. There will be another showing at cinemas around the UK on 18 August.