Skylight (2014)

Fresh off earning unanimous 5-star raves and a season on Broadway next year, Stephen Daldry’s production of David Hare’s mostly two-hander Skylight, starring seasoned British talents Carey Mulligan, Bill Nighy, and Matthew Beard, has arrived in Australia via. an exceptionally filmed performance courtesy of National Theatre Live. Believe the reviews, because this tale of love, class, and forgiveness in front of a backdrop of mid-90s, post-Thatcher England is truly exceptional.

Kyra (Mulligan), is a teacher at a school in London’s East End. Living in a council flat and teaching in a school in the ‘rough’ part of town couldn’t be farther from the life she only lived 3 years ago with wealthy restaurateur Tom (Nighy), his son Edward (Beard), and Tom’s wife and daughter (both are unseen), as is revealed to the audience in the hours we are privy to. Both appearing at Kyra’s apartment on the same snowy evening, wishing for some kind of closure in what ended abruptly years earlier, what unfolds is a tale of preconceived notions and letting go.

While Hare’s play was distinctly written in a specific cultural and political climate (the mid-90s period of post-Thatcher dissatisfaction with the British class system), it is surprisingly universal. Skylight is a distinctly socially and politically-minded play that could have easily turned into a cold sociological study, but instead, through its small setting and cast, couldn’t feel further from a clinical essay, but is instead a sharply accurate and personal observation. It doesn’t claim to offer the full picture of the issues at hand, covering every aspect in a whistle-stop tour manner, rather, like the situation, we are privy to a small part of it, a window into a moment in time, which couldn’t be a more perfect approach.

In a world of image cultivation and false philanthropy, where we are constantly being examined, scrutinised, and wanting to change ourselves in order to ‘come off better’ to others, certain aspects of Skylight, including the climactic ‘social worker’ speech delivered by Kyra (which has garnered applause both at live and filmed performances for how on-point it still is), couldn’t be more accurate and essential, and something that I don’t wish to spoil here.

Daldry’s production is marvelous and stripped down. The apartment set-up is gorgeous and awe-inspiring yet simple, only putting the audience into the narrative more. Nighy, with all his Mick Jagger-like swagger and charm, is in a role with so many Nighy-isms and tics that it could have been seen as purely playing himself. But instead he harnesses them to only enhance his performance, to create a character that is so much more than an ambling tower of charisma, exhibiting hurt, passion, confusion, and even naivety with the world outside his. Or, to put it as Variety did “Bill Nighy’s furiously brittle Tom blazes with self-entitlement, ricocheting between bravado and aching neediness”.  Like ying and yang, he’s the opposite of Mulligan’s Kyra, which is a career high performance in a career made up entirely of highs. She demonstrates why she is one of the best and most reliable actors working today (she’s one of my personal favourites), as powerful and compelling as ever. NT Live’s presentation truly puts you in the moment, if not in a better position than the theatre audience, because you’re able to see where so much of her performance takes place – her eyes. The best comparison for her turn as Kyra is her performance as Sissy, the sister of Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, in Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)‘s Shame. 

Melancholic and world-weary but determined, tough, and mature beyond her years, Mulligan, while dealt a few grand monologues that allow her to really tear into the quiet anger Kyra harbours, is mostly deliciously restrained. The exact opposite to Nighy’s Tom, who candidly ambles around her kitchen from the get-go, reminiscing one moment and bitching about his staff the next in some lines that draw chuckles of relatability from the audience; Mulligan’s Kyra listens but never hides away in the corner, before reluctantly warming up to her visitor, still maintaining a level of guardedness. Quietly, subtly expressive, you can see the fire in her eyes, and how it changes with each seamless change in emotion, before she bursts forward, no longer able to completely contain her passion and anger she feels towards Tom in both the past and present. With the production going to Broadway in 2015, this is a performance sure to be an early frontrunner for a Tony win, and one that I could watch forever and ever.

National Theatre Live’s presentation of Skylight is an enthralling, magical experience. Anchored by a trio of excellent performances of Mulligan, Nighy, and Beard, Hare’s study of class, relationships, and forgiveness is funny, sad, and what’s more, relevant. It only enforces something I’ve been noticing in time periods and historical events lately, and it’s best articulated by Jeff Daniels in the book of the screenplay and history behind George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck:

“Everything’s so cyclical. Everything comes back and history does repeat itself if we allow it”.

Skylight is surely one of the best cinema experiences of 2014.

Rating: 5/5

Palace Cinemas is doing encore screenings of Skylight this weekend (22 and 23 November, 2014) and next Wednesday, November 26. Catch it while you can. Book here.

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