NT Live Skylight: David Hare’s play is as relevant in 2023, as in 1995 or 2014

United KingdomUnited Kingdom NT Live – David Hare’s Skylight: Captured live (directed by Robin Lough) at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre on 17.7.2014 and available again in cinemas from 16.11.2023. (JPr)

Bill Nighy (Tom Sergeant) and Carey Mulligan (Kyra Hollis) in Skylight © John Haynes

Carey Mulligan – Kyra Hollis
Bill Nighy – Tom Sergeant
Matthew Beard – Edward Sergeant

Director – Stephen Daldry
Set and Costume designer – Bob Crowley
Assistant director – Justin Martin
Sound designer – Paul Arditti
Lighting designer – Natasha Katz
Music – Paul Englishby

David Hare’s play Skylight was put at the National Theatre in 1995 directed by Sir Richard Eyre with the late Sir Michael Gambon and Lia Williams in the two main roles and in the following year transferred to the West End and Broadway. Stephen Daldry’s new production opened at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre in June 2014 and starred Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy — reprising the role he had first performed in 1997 — and Matthew Beard. It is a National Theatre Live recording of the performance on 17th July 2014 which we get the chance to see again. After another short run in the West End the play returned to Broadway for a limited engagement in 2015 when it won a Tony Award for the Best Revival of a Play.

All you need to know about Skylight is revealed in playwright David Hare’s interval interview (which I hope 2023 cinema audiences will see) with Emma Freud who starts by saying how ‘Everything has changed so much’ in the eighteen years since it was first on at the National Theatre. To which Hare – in apparently a rare interview (at the time?) – responds ‘We had just had fifteen years of [Conservative] governments telling us the only people who mattered in society were entrepreneurs and that people who were doing public jobs like teachers, doctors and nurses didn’t matter and they weren’t productive. And so, we’d had fifteen years of governments like that – and ‘Hallo’ – we’ve just had four years of another government like that and so it seems fairly relevant.’ Initially it was Margaret Thatcher, then John Major and later David Cameron; whilst Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak via Liz Truss have helped extend those four years to thirteen and for many (most?) it is plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (and that is confirmed with the return of now-Lord Cameron to the cabinet table)!

In one way when you watch Skylight things definitely have not changed as there is still a sense – and an ongoing bitterness – in British Society by those who have not for those who have. In a very wordy, and worthy, two-hour play Hare with just three characters pits former lovers, the emotionally repressed, stuffed-shirt Tom Sergeant, the epitome of capitalism who as a successful businessman has a chain of restaurants, against the much younger Kyra Hollis who chooses to live in a (then?) less-fashionable part of London, Kensal Rise, and teaches maths in a somewhat deprived and difficult school in East Ham. We learn Kyra is actually ‘a seaside solicitor’s daughter’ and that her ideals are not Tom’s ideals; for instance, she has no TV, reads no newspapers and enjoy reading classic novels on her bus ride to school and observing her fellow passengers (Tom is chauffeur driven everywhere). Commenting on her school she says, ‘There are kids from very tough backgrounds. At the very least you offer them support. You care for them. You offer them security. You give them an environment where they feel they can grow. But you make bloody sure you challenge them.’ (Every teacher’s credo and I was one for 25 years!)

At 18 Kyra was walking down the London’s King’s Road and spotted a job in one of Tom’s restaurants, ‘I was a waitress for 45 minutes. [Tom’s wife] Alice made me boss on the spot’ and left her in charge when Alice and Tom’s daughter had an accident. During the play (spoiler sorry!) we discover Kyra left Tom when Alice discovered their affair, but Alice has since died after cancer. Three years after her death they come back together, lovingly briefly, but bickering mostly in her freezing flat – with a meal of spaghetti bolognese being cooked onstage in real time – about free market capitalism versus socially recognisable Kyra’s willingness to give up the life she could have had in order to help others strive for what they need or want. Whilst even Tom accepts ‘The banks are running the world’ and rails against ‘management gurus’ and their four hours a week input into the way he runs his business.

In 2023 working from home would be a major topic of conversion and that does raise the issue of how dated the setting now appears and this could undermine your response to the play’s message. You may even have to explain to someone what a bank is; then there is Yellow Pages mentioned (there was no Google in 1995), remember the Poll Tax?, CD Walkmans? or Cindy Crawford? And what is that thing with a dial on it used to make a call when Tom needs a taxi because there were few mobile phones and no Uber in the 1990s?

The arrival of Tom’s son, Edward, tops and tails the play and he talks of a ‘gap year’, remember them? He is somewhat estranged from his father, more so after his mother’s death. Edward gets one of the funniest lines in a play with a good deal of humour in it when he discusses some work he has selling frankfurters outside football grounds and working with a girl who he says is the only one ‘who’ll sleep with me because we both smell the same.’ In response to Kyra saying how the thing she missed most from her time working with Tom and Alice – and knowing Edward as he was growing up – is a ‘good, cooked breakfast’, he returns with one from the Ritz at the end.

Bill Nighy (Tom Sergeant) and Carey Mulligan (Kyra Hollis) in Skylight © John Haynes

Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy need no introduction from me in 2023 and Matthew Beard (Edward) was in his mid-20s in 2014 and while I couldn’t’ immediately place where I most recognised him from; it eventually dawned on me that it was from the BBC Two’s compelling drama series Vienna Blood, though he has done much else of course. Mulligan’s acting is refreshingly natural, open-faced, honest and convincing as a Kyra who we have all met with one name or another. Nighy is well Bill Nighy – has he ever been anyone else? – as the sardonic Tom. Nighy has cornered the market recently in urbane, laconic roles and I had never seen him so animated or so emotional. Neither do I think J have heard him say so much in any part before and although no couple would work through a relationship by talking quite so much, you will buy into their unfulfilled and, more than likely, unfulfillable love.

Matthew Beard is gauche and engaging as Edward and almost a fourth cast member is Bob Crowley’s set which is entirely appropriate for the claustrophobia of Kyra’s living conditions with the block of flats we see as a backdrop. It is heated only by a small electric fire, has a functional kitchen with a visible Ascot water heater (remember them?) and there is an old-style Fairy Liquid bottle beloved of ‘makes’ on Blue Peter in days gone by. Adding to the pervading atmosphere is Paul Arditti’s soundscape of everyday life on a north-west London estate, Natasha Katz’s lighting and Paul Englishby’s minimalist music.

If you have never seen Skylight take this chance now, or even if you have, go see it again since I highly recommend you to.

Finally, why Skylight? Well, during Alice’s illness Tom’s says ‘She spent the day watching birds, through this large square of light above her. The skylight over her bed.’

Jim Pritchard

For more about NT Live’s Skylight in cinemas click here.

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