1990s >> 1996 >> no-1101-may-1996

Theatre Review: ‘Skylight’ by David Hare

Capitalist values rejected

'Skylight' by David Hare

Some moments in the theatre last forever. I remember in 1959 being overwhelmed by Beattie Bryant's dramatic and revelatory act of self-discovery at the end of Wesker's Roots –  a play which will always carry its inspiring message for socialists that people can change; that they can learn, individually and collectively, to take charge of their own lives and transform the world in which they live. Skylight by David Hare, now transferred from the National Theatre to Wyndham's Theatre, has much the same power to remain resolutely part of the memory.

I first saw Skylight soon after it opened last May. Months later when its impact continued to resonate I bought a copy of the script, the better to understand the nature of its claims on my memory. And now I am clear that here is a minor classic; a play of its time, full of insights about the mean-minded, miserable nineties, yet also full of optimism about the possibilities of desirable change.

A chamber play for three players – Skylight follows the meeting of two ex-lovers – Tom a successful entrepreneurial restaurateur in his early fifties, and Kyra a struggling teacher in her early thirties. Hare writes captivating dialogue of great weight – witty, honest and revealing. He is much helped by two amazing performances from Michael Gambon and Lea Williams, and by Richard Eyre's impeccable direction. Tom and Kyra stand as emblems of their respective classes: he is a thrustful money-maker; she a put-upon employee. But Hare doesn't make the mistake of making Tom a pantomime villain and Kyra only the course of goodness and light. Tom is insensitive, dogmatic and macho, but he is also lyrical, amusing and compassionate. Kyra is principled, steadfast and courageous; but she is also acerbic, self-righteous and stubborn.

What remains for me are memories of an enthralling evening and the almost epic quality of Kyra's daily struggle to teach deprived, poverty-stricken children. "You care for them. You offer them an environment where they feel they can grow. But also you make bloody sure you challenge them." Kyra has a first class honours degree in maths and Tom cannot understand her motivation. He accuses her of throwing her talents away "teaching kids at the bottom of the heap", and of doing "anything rather than achieve".

The last page of script begins with Kyra offering this ringing defence: "I have to eat quickly. There's a boy I'm late for. I'm teaching him off my own bat. Extra lessons. Early, so early! I sometimes think I must be going insane. I wake at five-fifteen, five-thirty. The alarm goes off. I think what am I doing? What is this all about? But then I think no, this boy has the spark. It's when you see the spark in someone  . . . This boy is fourteen, fifteen. His parents are split. He lives in this place I cannot describe to you. It's so appalling he has to the bloody common to work . . .  And that is it, that's being a teacher. One really good pupil. That's enough."

To those who would have us believe, mistakenly, that human nature is intrinsically fixed and selfish, Kyra's behaviour is inexplicable. Yet there are many thousands of teachers whose benevolent behaviour mirrors precisely that of Kyra. Even in this rotten catch-as-catch-can world such people reject the egocentric selfishness of capitalism. They seek satisfactions in ways which help others. Imagine the explosion of concerned, caring behaviour when strife and competition are replaced by sympathy and co-operation. The struggle to create such a world is given substance by Skylight.