Skylight | Melbourne Theatre CompanyPhotos – Jeff Busby

David Hare is one of those rare playwrights who is able to embed political ideas and arguments so deeply within a character you forget there’s a writer at work behind it all.

Writing in The Guardian in 2015 about the need for the British Labour Party to re-evaluate its mission, Hare described his 1995 play Skylight as ‘[giving] voice to private enterprise’s self-righteous hostility towards those who work in public services’. But it’s far from a one-sided play, also testing the motivations of those who choose to devote themselves – often to the detriment of their own advancement – to social and political causes.

While Skylight had its genesis in the social divisions that were a legacy of Thatcherism, the play’s scrutiny of entrepreneurism, public service, wealth creation and the welfare state are still relevant, and not only in Britain. This is a play that speaks to current rifts in Australian society – about the role of government, the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots, and the demarcation between ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’ – making this Melbourne Theatre Company revival of the play timely.

Hare uses a relatively simple love story to anchor his themes. Tom (Colin Friels) and Kyra (Anna Samson) were once lovers. Kyra worked for Tom and his wife, living in the family home and running one of Tom’s restaurants. It was Tom’s wife Alice who gave Kyra her first job, and Kyra always swore that if Alice found out about the affair, she’d leave.

Skylight begins several years after the affair, and Tom – now executive officer of a large chain of restaurants – has come looking for Kyra. Alice has died of cancer and Tom wants Kyra back.

Since leaving Tom, Kyra has been working as a schoolteacher. Her school is in a deprived area of the city, and her students are largely disengaged. She lives in a freezing-cold flat in a dismal tower block, and her main joy is travelling by bus across the city each day, reading classic novels.

Many people may have seen the recent National Theatre production of Skylight starring Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, which was widely screened as part of NT Live. It was a solid piece of theatre, one that garnered awards in both New York and London. Even so, I’d dare to say that this MTC production has a slight edge over it. The central relationship here is a touch more credible and there’s a more satisfying range to the performances.

Colin Friels is one of the great Australian stage actors, and watching him here you understand why he’s so acclaimed. In the first act, he gives us a man who is edgy and uncertain, awkwardly pacing the room as though in search of that place where he might best fit in, might find his way back into Kyra’s life. In the second act, he is more ebullient, more confident, the gestures larger, the voice louder, at times straining, as he strives to overwhelm Kyra with his reasoning. And then there are the silent moments, when without him saying a word, we see just how raw Tom’s emotions are.

It’s Kyra’s play and the role’s a demanding one. I wasn’t sure Anna Samson was ready for it, but she gives the performance she’s long been promising she’s capable of. She’s superb, easily matching Friels. Her Kyra is guarded, hiding behind her schoolteacher persona, treating Tom very much as the errant schoolboy, every inch his equal despite the differences in their circumstances, never allowing herself – no matter the pain it causes – to yield to him completely.  

As Tom’s teenage son, Edward – whose scenes bookend the play – Toby Wallace is convincingly gauche and moody.

Director Dean Bryant has found the optimum rhythm for the play, and the subtle movements in the tone of the piece are fluently realised.

Dale Ferguson has come up with an extraordinary set, one that emphasises the social environment in which Kyra has immured herself. It’s one of the few set designs I’ve seen at Southbank Theatre that’s been able to take advantage of the vastness of the Sumner stage while still managing to create an intimate space.

This MTC production of Skylight is one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen in quite a while. I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Melbourne Theatre Company presents
Skylight
by David Hare

Director Dean Bryant

Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Dates: 18 June – 23 July 2016
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au