David Hare’s Skylight opened at the National Theatre on May 4 1995. Directed by Richard Eyre, it starred Michael Gambon, Lia Williams and Daniel Betts – and was instantly acclaimed as a masterpiece, winning the Olivier for best new play for that year. A West End production, in which Bill Nighy and Stella Gonet took over the leading roles, ran in the West End the following year, but it has not been seen since.
In this revival, directed by Stephen Daldry, Nighy returns to the part of Tom Sergeant, a rich restaurateur who seeks out his former lover, now a teacher, living in East London. She is played by Carey Mulligan, and Sergeant’s son Edward by Matthew Beard. The conversations between the trio, in particular the great debate between Tom and Kyra in which their love for each other is tested by their different views of the world, make Skylight riveting drama.
Sarah Crompton: You’ve done this play before, so how does it feel coming back to it?
Bill Nighy: Well, apparently I’ve done it before. I have fond memories of the people involved. I have no memory, any at all, of actually performing the play, no recall in terms of the lines. I can’t tell you any line from any play I’ve ever done. I quoted David Hare one of his lines the other day to illuminate whatever point we were trying to make in the conversation, and I said ‘What play was that?’ and he said ‘It was your line, you said it about a hundred and fifty times in The Vertical Hour.’
SC: Carey, you have never seen it?
Carey Mulligan: No, because it was quite a long time ago. Stephen Daldry mentioned it to me almost two years ago, but I didn’t know anything about the play. So I prayed, as I started reading it, come on, be good. And it was beyond good, so I was thrilled.
SC: Bill, how does it feel coming back to it after you have done all the stuff with David in between?
BN: You won’t be surprised to hear me say that I admire David Hare as much as I admire certainly any writer ever. What I like about his writing is it is very conscientiously, in one way, an attempt to reproduce the way people actually speak, but it’s not just an attempt at naturalism. It’s stylised and it’s heightened, to great effect. It’s elegant and it’s funny and that’s the way to my heart, frankly.
SC: Carey, you’re really careful about how you choose parts. What made you think that this was the one that you wanted to come back to the stage to do?
CM: With theatre especially, you don’t want to do it unless you love it – there’s no way you can pull it off, making people happy, making yourself happy for 12 weeks or whatever.
SC: And you have to cook on stage?
CM: It’s so hard! [She laughs] What’s really good is that Stephen’s so no-nonsense, we started doing that on day two. So I’ve been cooking since the second day of rehearsals. We started acting the play out in the afternoon of the first day of rehearsals, which is not an ordinary thing to do.
BN: No, but it’s a great thing to do.
CM: With most rehearsal periods you spend the first week sitting around talking about your feelings. We just got into it, just started chopping some onions. I can actually cook one meal now, as opposed to before, when I could cook nothing. My family are very excited.
BN: As soon as the onions go on, the audience is halfway to the restaurant.
CM: Just eat before you come to see the show!
SC: Matthew, this is your first play, do you feel at all apprehensive?
Matthew Beard: I think I might be the least nervous, oddly, just in the sense that I don’t know how bad it’s going to be.
BN: Opening a play is just tough. The idea that actors are weirdly protected from it is a myth. If you imagine yourself having to spend two and a bit hours cooking bolognaise, remembering a whole major work by David Hare and speaking it at the correct moment between chopping carrots and stirring the onions in front of an audience – the normal human response is ‘Please, can I go to the airport?’
SC: So what’s the bit that pulls you back?
BN: I don’t know, I’ve been trying to work it out. [He half-laughs] It’s more than usually possible that I won’t do a play again. But Skylight is one of the great plays in the English language. I was lucky enough to be a part of it at one point in its life, and it’s a timely thing to deliver it again in the modern world. We haven’t attempted to contemporise it or anything. It’s set firmly when it was written, in the Nineties, and to see how it resonates now is quite extraordinary.
When you are in something that you’re proud of and it’s funny and it’s a good night out and all of those things, there’s nothing quite like it. The rewards are proportionate to the amount of alarm and distress it causes you.
CM: You feel tired just because you’re running round in a corset and expending a lot of energy and adrenalin because you’re nervous, but not exhausted emotionally. You feel lighter at the end of it, and I love it so much. The best time is when I come off and I can’t really remember what happened. When you have nights like that, that’s the best thing ever.
SC: Does it make you more apprehensive than film?
CM: It’s different. With stage, you feel completely like you’re just in a bubble. I love not being able to see anything. I love coming out and I can’t see anything because the lights are so bright and it’s pitch black. That’s ideal for me, that’s when I have the best time. On film sets I can see everyone, and I really still find that so difficult.
SC: Do you have to adapt how you are on stage?
MB: I’m just aware of what I’m thinking and feeling but I do obviously have to get that to the back of the auditorium. So there are things like projection and filling the room, and not dropping the ends of lines – technical things which are important, but I don’t think they change the way I feel in a scene.
CM: I don’t give it a massive amount of thought. I think we just sort of do it and hope they can hear you at the back.
BN: The job is the same – to attempt to make it sound like you’ve never said it before and as if it’s just occurred to you. And that’s the same whether you’re on camera or whether you’re on stage in a room full of people.
SC: Bill, you’ve been in three of the most significant dramas of our time – Arcadia, Blue/Orange and this. Yet perhaps now people think of you as a film actor?
BN: Somebody asked me recently, ‘Have you done a lot of plays?’ I thought hang on. I used to do nothing but plays. I’ve been very fortunate that on several occasions I’ve had jobs where I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world whatever you had to offer – however much money you’ve got.
SC: There used to be that thing where you had to be either a stage actor or a film actor. Do you feel that you can move easily between them?
CM: I wanted to be a musical theatre actress – I wanted to play Sally Bowles, forever and ever always. [She laughs] And then I realised I wasn’t a good enough singer and I can’t dance, so to be in a film at all was extraordinary.
SC: The play seems to have huge resonance about what society is and what people are becoming.
BN: In the conversation that takes place between Carey’s character and mine, the play does touch upon one of the central facts of our lives, which is where do we see our responsibility. The conversation we have is brilliantly balanced between the two fundamental schools of thought. One is that you legislate according to natural selection, the other is that you don’t. You have compassion, you try and help people. It’s a fundamental clash between two people who happen to love each other, which complicates everything.
The evening, the couple of hours you’ll spend with us, hopefully you will be moved by large human themes and you will be entertained and you will be made to laugh. And then you will be very hungry…