If you want to see how great acting can make a script come alive, go see what Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan are doing to make David Hare look like the best writer on Broadway.
I have my issues with Hare as a playwright—he tends to go for the angular vein instead of the jugular, structuring his scenes so that they portray the preparation and the aftermath of a dramatic moment instead of the moment itself. In Skylight, it’s all aftermath—the dramatic stuff all happened three years ago, which means that what we’re seeing now is two people stirring the ashes of an old fire, instead of the fire itself. (When they’re not lobbing rhetorical grenades at each other.) I would say “typical Hare,” but the structure of Skylight is rare for him. Between a prologue and an epilogue (or, since the male lead is a restaurant owner, an appetizer and dessert), you have a real time encounter on a single set between two people asking themselves and each other the surface question of the play (will we get back together again?) while filling you in on their shared past, which leads to a lot of “Do you remember when we” speeches that can, with the wrong actors, turn into the deadliest kind of “We both know this, but the audience doesn’t” exposition. In other words, this is a modern Ibsen drama, complete with an independent woman and a man who means well, whose premise plays out like a sequel to some adulterous version of Doll’s House where Nora’s maid had to leave because her affair with Helmer was discovered.
And on the page, it comes across, like a lot of Hare does, as a debating tournament between opposing worldviews where you know exactly whose side the author favors. But in the hands of Nighy and Mulligan, all bets are off because it’s all about the people. Each actor finds something real and human in every debating point that Hare makes, which deepens the play into something truly dramatic, where characters can be both right and wrong, likeable and frightening, admirable and pitiful, and an audience can root for them to get together even as it wants to yell at one or both of them to run as fast as they can in the opposite direction.
All of which comes from the acting, and stellar direction by Stephen Daldry. A couple of examples. Bill Nighy’s Tom has come to Kyra’s apartment with the obvious intention of trying to win her back or get her to come back to him. Yet the words “Will you come back to me?” never get spoken. I can think of a lot of reasons why the words are missing—from Hare’s particular tics as a writer to the fact that we’re talking about a British male here—but they didn’t feel like they were missing until I thought about it later, and that’s because Bill Nighy’s character work made his Tom incapable of saying them, and made me believe, while watching him, that their absence was a character choice, and not a writing flaw. Every time he gets close to asking, he’s like a walking version of one of those foreign language participles which expect a negative answer, physically bracing himself for the “No” he knows is coming. (At one point, if memory serves, he offers up the possibility of Kyra coming back, but it’s more like a waiter who’s afraid the kitchen might already be out of tonight’s special than someone who is actually asking for what he wants.) Which is, to me, a much more subtle and sorrowful choice than the one which Michael Gambon made to justify that missing question in the original production. Gambon’s Tom in that version was such a presumptuous dick that you felt like he expected to get what he wanted simply by walking into the room, and that it was beneath him to ask for anything. When he came close to a tender moment, it was like watching a bull try to stroke china instead of smashing it.
But then Nighy is so much more charming than Gambon; and oh, does he know how to use his charm to make his Tom attractive. If you like him in his movies, you will adore him live—the stage lets him be both bigger and smaller, it’s like the difference between a chamber orchestra and a full symphony—live theatre gives him more instruments, and he uses every one of them. Especially his body. He roams the stage like a scenic designer dancing around a hole in the floor, and his physicality is so specific that it’s not only given a next-generation echo by Matthew Beard, who plays his son, but it’s parodied—and parodied brilliantly—by Mulligan.
Ah, Carey Mulligan. (Still, and so far, the best Nina ever.) If you only know her from Gatsby, then you don’t really know her. Her Kyra is wounded and content at the same time, like some Graham Greene heroine who has fallen and whose inner guilt keeps her satisfied with where she’s landed. (The set helps immensely here—unlike the original, which was more upscale and had no sense of neighborhood, this production spells out how low Kyra has gone from her days with Tom. The moment you see it, you know exactly where you are, and you also have a pretty good idea of who Kyra is to want to live there.)
While Nighy is striding across the stage like a whippet marking his territory, Mulligan perches on the kitchen counter like a wary guard dog, now and then approaching Nighy only to withdraw again. Her Kyra keeps things in, and when they break out, they surprise even her—like the moment when, while she’s talking about the early days of their relationship, she says “I knew it was only a matter of time” and then she realizes—and makes you realize—that the line also applies to what’s going on now. In her Kyra, the past is an internal echo chamber which not only goes external, but comments on what’s going on now. Of the three most touching moments of the night, two are hers: a sudden lurch into a desperate hug, and the simple act of putting a band-aid on a cut finger. (The third moment is Nighy’s at the top of the second act, and is reflected in the picture on the program.) (And yes—I know—I just used the word "touching" to describe three moments in a David Hare play.)
Like I say: the actors make the script come alive. They find moments of tenderness, to attempt and avoid, wherever they can; they create an emotional harmony that makes the intellectual arguments feel like they’re grounded in character; and when the political stuff shows up (as it always does with Hare), the groundwork they’ve laid makes it feel like heart-to-heart instead of mind-to-mind.
Plus they make David Hare look like Shakespeare. For that alone, you need to see this.