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David Hare’s Skylight is a fierce battle of wits and wills, pitting former lovers against each other as they argue about class, wealth, privilege, social responsibility, love, and cooking. Carey Mulligan stars as Kyra Hollis, a thirty-year-old teacher living in a drab apartment complex in a not-so-pleasant neighborhood in northwest London. On a snowy night, she is unexpectedly visited by Edward Sergeant (Matthew Beard), the university-age member of a family she used to work for. Edward is concerned about the well-being of his father, Tom (Bill Nighy), a millionaire restaurateur who, according to Edward, is having trouble dealing with the loss of his wife, Alice, a year before. Edward doesn’t know the full story behind the relationship that his father and Kyra had, right under Alice’s nose, but he thinks Kyra can help him out of his funk. “Dad’s got very peculiar,” he says, adding, “You know Dad. He’s not what you might call ‘emotionally available.’” He also expresses his displeasure at how Kyra walked out on the Sergeants. “My mother died. She actually died. Not you. You did something else. You cut yourself off from us without saying anything. And in a way I’m coming to think that’s much worse. Because you just left and said nothing.” Shortly after Edward leaves, Tom arrives, and then the fireworks really begin. Tom is in attack mode, condescending and critical, lacing into Kyra, who is making pasta, for the life she’s chosen, teaching underprivileged children and living in a dive in a bad part of town. He walks determinedly around the apartment, carefully adjusting furniture and even trying to take over the cooking. But Kyra defends the choices she’s made, accusing Tom of being a cold, selfish prig more concerned with money and possessions than people. “You have no right to look down on that life!” Kyra says, to which Tom soon replies, “You’re the only person who has fought so hard to get into it, when everyone else is desperate to get out!” Their intellectual game of cat and mouse keeps getting more fiery — it’s no coincidence that they even argue over her cheap space heater — and eventually explodes when they start getting to the true heart of the matter, whether they ever really were in love, and whether that love still exists.
Skylight premiered in England in 1995, with Lia Williams as Kyra and Michael Gambon as Tom, winning the Olivier Award for Best Play and earning four Tony nominations after moving to Broadway the following year. Nighy replaced Gambon in 1997, and therein lays this revival’s biggest problem: Kyra is supposed to be just past thirty, Tom nearly fifty; Mulligan is actually twenty-nine, but Nighy is sixty-four, so it’s difficult to get past the much bigger age difference now, hard to accept that Kyra was head-over-heels in love with the seemingly unlikable Tom, especially since their relationship is now so vitriolic. In addition, although the bookend scenes with Edward provide a different vantage point, they are dreadfully dull. But if you can get past those drawbacks, there’s much to like about Stephen Daldry’s production, which earned the 2015 Olivier Award for Best Revival. Mulligan, who previously appeared on Broadway in The Seagull and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in An Education, displays a whirlwind of emotions as Kyra, balancing her strength and determination with a heartbreaking vulnerability. She is a more than worthy adversary for Hare regular Nighy (The Vertical Hour, The Worricker Trilogy), who is carefully mannered as the erudite, poignantly nasty Tom. But every time the cerebral, politically tinged duel threatens to be too one-sided — in favor of the far more sympathetic Kyra — Hare (Plenty, The Judas Kiss) and Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Audience), who have previously collaborated on the films The Hours and The Reader, give Tom just the right twist, poking holes in Kyra’s motivations. Bob Crowley’s set opens up the apartment, with no walls or barriers between rooms or to the bleak outside, echoing the obstacles that Tom and Kyra break down as they rip into each other, rehashing their past as they look to the future, wondering if they belong together, or ever did.