Stage and screen star Carey Mulligan received a standing ovation in London last night, playing the former mistress of Bill Nighy in the revival of David Hare’s 1995 play Skylight at the Wyndham's Theatre.
As the idealistic teacher Kyra Hollis, Mulligan manages to bring to Hare's 1995 dissection of love and idealism a steely, knowing wisdom. Kyra is holed up in a grotty Kensal Rise estate – beautifully recreated here by designer Bob Crowley – having abandoned her lover (Bill Nighy's Tom) years before when their affair was found out by Tom's wife Alice. Alice has since died of cancer and the play focuses on Tom and Kyra's meeting years after she left his home (and employ); he is still a wealthy charismatic restaurateur who simply cannot understand why, as he sees it, Kyra has thrown away her potential to spend her time teaching kids “at the bottom of the heap” at a challenging comprehensive. He also wants her back.
This is a complex and challenging play which tucks into the rich meat of the clash of their polar opposite approaches to life – his pragmatism and her idealism. But it is never that simple and the arguments emerge brilliantly from the deft sparring between the two ex-lovers.
Of course it is not hard to imagine where the left-wing Hare’s sympathies lie as Kyra attacks what she sees as Tom’s arrogance and self-pity with clarity and precision. Mulligan’s final speech defending people who try to do some good in society is stirring and beautifully delivered.
But this play also allows Nighy to fire off his own character’s defences. He has made something of himself from an impoverished upbringing and it is hard not to sympathise with his failure to understand why somebody like Kyra would be wasting their potential living a life of hand-to-mouth do-goodery.
As I say, the set is stunning – a superb recreation of a grotty council house with a breathtaking backdrop – and could overwhelm a less assured director than Stephen Daldry who helms here. But the real appeal is in the sparring of the leads on a hugely satisfying night of theatre that leaves you reflecting long into the night on the central question of whether compassion or hard edged pragmatism are the keys to living well.
Skylight is booking to 23 August 2014. Box Office: 0844 482 5120, www.SkylightWestEnd.com