David Hare’s Skylight revived

Posted by RDN under On theatre on 1 September 2014

I like the idea of liking David Hare as a pretty good playwright of the human heart who is hopeless when he lets his NW1 soft-left liberalism close his mind like a clam. But his Skylight, recently reprised in the West End, and by the NT live in cinemas, makes this quite difficult.

The play is LOL funny at points, that’s for sure. It makes its easy hits (laughing at the awfulness of the tract of land between Kilburn and South Finchley and the preciousness of wild Wimbledon is par for this course: comfortable metropolitan snobberies somehow not offending anyone).

For most of the first half, there is not much politics, and indeed the “Tory” entrepreneur half of the main duet gets some very good rants in. But come the interval, and David Hare lobs up to the simperingly Luvvied-up Emma Freud and tells us that the play was a response to the ghastliness of the Tory Britain which was just about to end then-abouts, only to be revived in the teens of the new century and thus making a new relevance for this revival.

So we were right to think the second half might deliver the left’s response to the entrepreneurial free-for all of the first half. We get it, of course, and much of it is no more than a eulogy for the public servants who bring education to the working classes in undesirable post-codes. Of course, The Guardian’s reviewer approves the lefty speeches, noting the applause this stuff wrings from audiences whether at Wyndams or the National itself. (Check out the comments, though. ) Truth is, however, that the play gets the entrepreneur to criticise late capitalism, up to a point; the teacher is given a free run. (She does say, and this is catnip to the right, that teachers have to set high standards.)

I don’t doubt that Tory and Labour education ministers of nearly every post-war period, and especially the run of ministers of the last 20 years, would be rightly cross to hear that their efforts – in which they might see more consistency than the Hare-ites like to admit –  were doing the best they could, given the educational orthodoxies (and yes, budgetry constraints) of their periods in office. I would not expect a Hare offering to be challenging on any of that: this isn’t Shaw or Harley Granville-Barker or J B Priestly, in any of whom one remembered arguments getting to a high level fairly swiftly.

Leaving that aside, this silly play doesn’t begin to challenge the stuff where the human heart and politics and policy intermesh.

Kyra has condemned herself to live in miserable circumstances for some reason or reasons which go beyond her wanting to devote herself to teaching the poor and under-funded. Her erstwhile lover does rave that she is mad to live in squalor so many miles from her school. On this, the epicentre of the play, we get no response from her. (Just possibly, we are allowed to believe it’s because the flat belongs to her temporarily absent Nigerian friend who needs it house-sat: but surely the sisterhood could have found some other reliable sub-tenant?)

It is a useful note as to the neophilia which afflicts the Hare-ite school of leftwingery (which sees the present as uniquely awful) that whilst Kyra explains pretty well why her profession is a vocation, she thinks only the present generation of Thatcherised dimwits would think it surprising or interesting that she might have this calling. Indeed, we could say to her very fairly: it has been a standard trope of middle and upper class life for centuries that a small percentage of the class feels the need to go off on missionary work in the East End and for their friends and relatives to be variously intrigued, amused or cross about it. What’s more, they then often felt and we now often smell a bit of a psychological glitch at work in these martyrdoms. And then we come back to the big problem in this play: we readily understand the martyrdom of vocation. But why the martyrdom of location?

What’s more, there is no word from either party as to why they shouldn’t nicely combine their two lives. Why shouldn’t the teacher go and live with the restaurateur in some property – not a palace, and not a wreck, either – somewhere handy for their different professions?

Along the way there are various other absurdities. The main one is that the stated reason for her being unwilling to be with her old lover is that Kyra can’t trust him after he inadvertently left some love letters of hers lying in a place where his late wife found them. It seems sloppy to allow a character of parts to imagine that a mistress can equate a bit of curatorial carelessness by an adulterous husband to his betrayal of his wife with her.

In short, by the end of the play, one just wants to give Kyra a slap. And that is true even of a Kyra played by Carey Mulligan.

 

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