Actions speak louder than words in New Zealand playwright, Gary Henderson’s award winning "Skin Tight." Or at least they should. Which, in fairness, they ultimately come to do in a production that loses a lot of its raw power for being slightly undercooked. If "Skin Tight" deals in the love, lust and violence of a married life, its physical and emotional wrestling often looks fake and fixed, like a WWF battle of the sexes where no one really bruises or bleeds. Yet, like WWF, "Skin Tight" has its superstars. And in Madeleine Dunne and Barry John Kinsella theatre might well have too.
In Henderson’s sparse yet ponderous script, Tom and Elizabeth inhabit a volatile, emotional landscape in New Zealand’s Canterbury Plains. Like Adam and Eve trapped in the Blue Lagoon, both are the centre of each others universe. There’s other people somewhere, like Kitty and an unnamed lover, and social obligations, like wars, but at the end and beginning of everyday it’s Tom and Elizabeth. Theirs is a marriage that knows no bounds, built upon endless arguments and bouts of brutality, and countless acts of trust and tenderness. A love with no end that’s soon to be tested as Elizabeth prepares to leave.
Under Owen Lindsay’s fluid direction, "Skin Tight" often leaves scratches, yet it rarely goes further than skin deep. Until Lindsay taps into its real power near the end. Too often "Skin Tight" skates its emotional and physical surfaces, something which will hopefully deepen as the run progresses. If both Dunne and Kinsella look comfortable in their comfort, their sensual chemistry crackles but doesn't always ignite when sexual intensity is called for. Equally their violence, with both sex and violence looking uneasily choreographed. Indeed, when physicality moves into non-realist areas, such as a knife held in the mouth routine, it finds itself stumbling into far more interesting spaces. Perhaps it speaks to the new performance landscape, very much different to 1994 when "Skin Tight" was first performed. Acknowledging the need for performers emotional safety, in "Skin Tight’s" instance physicality often looks awkwardly, and unconvincingly, staged, with neither performer looking completely relaxed. Indeed, the ending, where risk is more richly and rewardingly embraced, makes the case perfectly, revealing beautifully, and bravely, what might have been.
If Colin Doran’s lighting proves competent, his sound design proves clunky and badly managed, with several physical sequences looking unnecessarily stretched to accommodate an intrusive soundtrack. Costume also proves somewhat problematic. With Dunne constantly checking buttons or pulling down her summer dress, it’s never quite clear if this is a character trait, an actors tic, or a costume snafu. Looking like a reject from a Duran Duran video, Kinsella’s castaway costume proves far more successful, leading to a final image that helps brings it all home.
Yet if "Skin Tight" has a multitude of issues, you simply can’t take your eyes off Dunne and Kinsella. Dunne is a revelation, forever lithe and wonderfully expressive, even if her fighting skills need some polish and she really needs to come to terms with that dress. Kinsella, too, is a sheer joy, cracking open moments of power and depth when given space to play. Indeed, what’s absent in Henderson’s dialogue, Dunne and Kinsella richly compensate for. Yet their ease and chemistry, which flares bravely near the end, often feels like its chomping at the bit, suggesting there’s so much more to be had here.
Marking the first time a New Zealand playwright has been professionally produced in Ireland, "Skin Tight" mightn’t be afraid to go nude, but it's never so brave as to really go naked. Like clumsy sex, "Skin Tight" has its delightful moments and its ending forgives it much. But not everything. Especially as Lindsay, Dunne and Kinsella show moments of brilliance and have already done most of the hard work. But with one eye on the safety of the shore, it too often fails to really set sail. Yet even if "Skin Tight" boxes a little too clever, it's brave and bold, and delivers something of a knockout ending.
"Skin Tight" by Gary Henderson, presented by Restless Ecstasy, runs at The New Theatre until August