The plot of David Hare’s extraordinary play Skylight, currently in a limited revival on Broadway, could be summed up as “Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl.” That inversion of the old cliché is the first hint that this drama will not be traveling any shopworn paths.
Tom and Kyra, the two characters who occupy the stage exclusively for nearly the entire play, could also so easily be clichés.
In lesser hands than Hare’s, they surely would be, this rather self-satisfied middle-aged London restaurateur and self-righteous schoolteacher.
They would stalk each other around the tiny grubby apartment that serves as the set, turning it into a boxing ring for one of those plays that I always think should be labeled The Let’s-You-and-Him-Fight School of drama.
The plot is fairly simple. Tom shows up on Kyra’s doorstep three years after their six-year affair ended. In the meantime, his wife has died. Tom wants Kyra back, and for a good part of the play, it looks as though he might stand a chance. But how it is that they don’t get together is the heart of the matter.
There is plenty of argument in this script, shouting even, but when it happens it feels more inevitable—and certainly more unfortunate—than in any play I know that might be called “domestic drama.”
I say unfortunate because Hare makes us like Tom and Kyra, makes us root for them—we don’t want them to fight. They’re both smart and funny, and they like each other and make each other laugh. And they (and Hare) make us laugh.
Early in the play, Tom complains about being bedeviled by a management consultant.
Tom: He’s one of those people who’s been told he’s good with people. That means he smiles all the time and is terribly interested. He keeps saying, ‘No, tell me what do you think?’
Kyra: In other words …
Tom: Yes. He’s completely insufferable. It’s how I was always told you get women into bed. By doing something called ‘listening to their problems.’ It’s a contemptible tactic.
Kyra: You wouldn’t do it?
Tom: No, of course not. You know me, Kyra. I wouldn’t stoop to it. Either they want you or else they don’t. Listening’s halfway to begging.
I don’t know many authors who can so seamlessly blend comedy and sadness the way Hare does. Or perhaps weld is the better word, because there is no pulling apart the joy and sadness in this play, the outcome of which, while most assuredly inevitable, is never predictable.
The love Tom and Kyra feel for each other is as strong as the forces that ultimately keep them apart. That’s where the heartbreak lies, and we feel it as surely as they do.
Would a production that didn’t feature Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan move me as much? I think it might, having read the script after seeing the play. Just the words on the page were enough.
That said, I can’t imagine any actors serving Hare better than these actors do. She inhabits her role as though it were written just for her—and it wasn’t: Skylight debuted in London in 1995 with a different cast. But I never for a moment thought of Mulligan as an actress while watching her on stage. She completely embodied the role of the earnest schoolteacher Kyra Hollis.
But I’ve seen very little of Mulligan before this, so there are no other Mulligan performances to cloud my mind.
Nighy is a more complicated matter. When he appeared on stage for the first time the night I saw the play, he got a quick round of applause. This is nothing new in the theater, I know, but—probably because I am, to put it mildly, an inconstant theatergoer—it bothered me all the same, took me out of the moment. Oh, yeah, this is a play, he’s a famous actor, I’m sitting in a seat without much legroom.
I wondered for a minute or two if this would be a problem. But that fourth wall might as well have been made of cinderblock for all the attention Nighy paid the applause, and pretty soon it was just Tom Sergeant, restaurant tycoon, up there on the stage, trying to win his former lover back.
Still, Nighy is Nighy, you could say. He has gestures, inflections, rhythms, and body language that follow him from project to project. All true, and yet I don’t know any actor who, at a deeper, more profound level, inhabits a character the way he does.
(And speaking of inhabiting: An unexpected delight of this production is Matthew Beard, the young actor who plays Nighy’s son with a sweetness that never cloys. He appears only at the beginning and the very end, but quite quickly you realize that he’s internalized Nighy’s mannerisms so completely that he might actually be his son.)
The story about Nighy that I love most is that while filming his role as the hilariously washed up rock star in Love Actually, he was also darting to the studio next door to play the imperious newspaper editor in the TV miniseries State of Play.
The man does have range. He also has that rare talent for showing you a character’s shortcomings even as he solicits your empathy. Which is not to say that he ever courts your sympathy outright. That would be more than halfway to begging.
Skylight isn’t some exhausting O’Neill-like epic, but it is an intense experience. It picks you up and hurls you along for two hours, and then resolves with such dramatic rightness that you walk out completely satisfied and at the same time all shook up.
On my way home, I wondered how the actors manage this intensity night after night. Now, I know this is what actors do, inhabit a role and all that. But still, juggling the knifelike shards of life like that—even if you’re juggling a life that’s not yours, that you’re just living in for a couple of hours a night—that must take a toll.
And that’s to say nothing of the intricate physical business of this play, things so carefully woven into the whole that it’s only in retrospect that you recall, say, the way Nighy tells you a bit about his character by the way he obsessively aligns chairs and tables with the toes of his shoes, maneuvering for advantage with every little softshoe step.
Other action may be less subtle—Mulligan cooks a real meal of spaghetti Bolognese from scratch on stage over the course of Act One—but no less impressive. Leaving a play, I’ve never so badly wanted to talk to actors about how they do their jobs.
Which is, I suppose, another way of saluting the brilliance of these actors and the brilliant play they’ve brought to indelible life.