A retro genre piece, crisply adapted by David Hare, “The Red Barn” at London’s National Theater watches as a man comes unstuck. Provincial lawyer Donald Dood (Mark Strong) hits mid-life only to realize there’s no turning back. This adaptation of “La Main,” Georges Simenon’s 1968 novel, is richly served by director Robert Icke’s classy, cinematic staging. Neither he nor Hare lets us lose sight of our role: to watch forensically and voyeuristically, our eyes peeled for tells. The slowest of slow burns, it holds your attentions and withholds reward, so that its study of stasis sticks around like snowblindness.
It starts with a snowstorm going full pelt, four bodies braced against lashing white winds — an extraordinary sight in itself. Only three make it home: Donald and Ingrid Dood (Hope Davis) and their guest Mona (Elizabeth Debicki). No sign of Ray, Mona’s husband and Donald’s oldest friend. Each of them might have a motive for his murder. Ray’s infidelities were routine and his life richly insured. Only unnervingly, cryptically, nobody panics. They carry on behind poker faces, a snowdrift of subtext between them.
Less a whodunit than a whoareyou, Simenon’s story unfolds into an examination of sexual envy and self-loathing. It’s a brain-glitch of a thing, as Donald inches his way into his old friend’s old life, implicitly encouraged by his wife to start an affair with the feline Mona. Hare’s adaptation swings between a stale marital home in Connecticut — Ingrid fussing around her husband as the seconds tick by — and the sexual crackle of new lovers in Manhattan. None of the trio acknowledges their situation, but no one contests it or protests. Silences simmer with unspeakable truths.
Hare sprinkles the script with the imagery of sight. Davis’s Ingrid is all-seeing. Sat in the optician’s chair, her god-like eye projected overhead, its pupil a black-hole, she never misses a thing. She’s a wife who sees through her husband without even looking his way, who knows him better than he knows himself. Davis is exacting in her irritations, all judgmental smiles, shrill silences and suffocating calm. She’s like being waterboarded with chamomile tea. Strong plays Donald with the stillness of someone evading a motion sensor. “Does anything escape you?” he eventually explodes.
Because Donald is trapped, inextricably and inexorably bound up in a life he never intended to live. As a young man, he settled for security and simplicity — “30 miles from home,” married, two kids, the works — and he suddenly sees that for what it is: small, staid, stuck. The death of Ray, this Manhattan big-shot with an easy confidence and a sexual abandon, brings it home: “It’s as if I’ve lived my whole life with the handbrake on.” Strong starts with a stoop, old before his time, and straightens up as his affair starts. The years fall off him and even his hair seems get darker (a mark of Bunny Christie’s pinpoint costuming). Donald’s crisis — call it mid-life, call it existential — is the impossibility of escaping himself, of seeing the world through somebody else’s eyes. He is, in a sense, snowed in.
It’s perfectly expressed in Icke’s production, a slow-dawning horror. The sliding shutters of Christie’s design, opening to reveal rooms so monochrome your eyes strain, seem both to focus our gaze and to box Donald in. The frame encroaches on him, squeezing his space. The action plays at an awfully unhurried pace, treading a tightrope between tension and tedium — as life does, perhaps. It’s kept taut by precision: gestures that look like choreography, the mosquito violins and radiator hums of Tom Gibbons sound design, Paule Constable’s thermostat lighting. Icke pushes genre just to the edge of schlock then reins it in. If, in the end, it just goes slack — that bit too drawn out, that bit too one-note — it’s still quite a thing: An exacting portrait of marital abyss.