Had I, before the NT's David Hare-penned The Red Barn entered stage left, ever seen one before? I don't think so. Having seen The Red Barn, have I seen one now? Probably, but I'm not 100% sure.
Written by Hare based on the novel La Main by Georges Simenon (he of Maigret fame), The Red Barn tells the story of two couples who get caught in a blizzard. When one person fails to emerge from said blizzard, the remaining three lives become tragically entangled in a mess of emotion and bodily fluids. It does not end well.
It's an odd little play in some ways and, on reflection, the play is the weakest part of the production. Billed as a thriller, which genre it undeniably does slot into, it's also maddeningly predictable. Every plot development is heavily sign posted, occasionally in a fun, 'hey, remember the weird opening scene? It's about to become super relevant' sort of way but more often in a glaringly obvious 'THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT' sort of way. Maybe it's just me, but I like my thrillers at least 100% twistier than The Red Barn. I struggle to think of it as a thriller at all to be honest.
Ultimately, it's difficult for the play to sustain the tension that the rest of the production, particularly the staging, is working its socks off to build.
The staging is bloody magnificent though and pretty much worth the price of a ticket on its own. Undoubtedly the most televisual - not cinematic, televisual - production I've ever seen, director Robert Icke and designer Bunny Christie (man, I wish that was my name) deliver an homage to Hitchcock via early series Madmen that is just incredibly compelling. The production is driven by a series of black rectangular blocks that move around to frame each scene, giving the look of watching the action on a massive TV. When a scene needs to expand to show off a hitherto unseen piece of the jigsaw the blocks slide around to accommodate that too. Visually impressive and, I assume, technically daring the effect is both instantly striking and also very memorable.
The production also benefits from a really brave use of darkness and silence, a welcome counterpoint to the constantly evolving set and the reasonably high number of special effects used. The special effects are well used though, and necessary to the plot, particularly the occasional use of strobe lighting. Extensive sections of audio recording become a little bit less interesting for being slightly overused, but are still a clever way to fill the space between scenes.
If the staging is the star of The Red Barn, and it is, then second billing must go to the reliably excellent Mark Strong who is, reliably, excellent as Donald, the lead character and the only one with any real nuance or emotional depth. He drives the plot on exceptionally well and does manage to draw a sense of unpredictability and danger into proceedings. Donald is appropriately named in that he's an unpleasant, insecure and vaguely pathetic character objectively, but in Strong's hands becomes somehow likeable if not altogether sympathetic. The female leads, Elizabeth Debicki and, on the night we were in, understudy Sarah Oliver-Watts, are dependably strong and do the best they can with the material available to them but both of their character are very broadly drawn and pretty much stereotypes; the fragile/manipulative, younger, blonder Other Woman and the faintly unhinged, keeping-up-appearances, WASPy wife respectively.
I'm aware there's a lot of snark in this post but I still, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, would recommend The Red Barn. The design alone is worth your time and any chance to see Mark Strong doing his thing live is one that should be seized with both hands. And it seems plenty of people agree with me, because ticket availability is almost nonexistent. Book now or miss out.
The Red Barn is in the Lyttleton Theatre at the National Theatre until January 17th.