In February, Young Vic artistic director David Lan received an Outstanding Achievement Olivier for his entire “audacious” season in 2003. His latest production – and his last self-directed one before the South Bank landmark closes this summer for a two-year, £12.5 million renovation – sees him carrying that same spirit through into this year’s programming.
The choice of the play alone, Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, offers ample proof. This surreal stage fable, which hasn’t had a major London outing in 50 years, didn’t win the 1942 Pulitzer Prize for being easy. Described by the author as the history of mankind in comic strip, it pits the suburban Antrobuses of New Jersey against every catastrophe in history – fire, famine, flood, war and even the Ice Age – in a cyclical plot that undermines theatrical convention at every turn. Wilder wasn’t exactly short on audacity himself.
In Lan’s updated version, we’re alerted early on in Act One - which finds the Antrobus family, along with their pet dinosaur and woolly mammoth, awaiting the advancing glacier - that the evening holds more than a few surprises up its sleeve. “I’m amazed the house isn’t coming down around our ears,” marvels sexy parlourmaid Sabina, just as one of the walls on Richard Hudson’s impressively ramshackle traverse stage collapses.
An apparently exasperated Indira Varma, who plays Sabina, breaks from character to complain about the play and production. It’s the first of many instances when the actors remove their masks, halting and restarting the action to explain their ‘true’ motivations and personal concerns. In this regard, the Act Three opener is particularly disorientating, challenging the audience’s ability and willingness to suspend their disbelief.
No doubt many theatregoers will find this approach too unsettling for their liking, but despite Varma’s grumbling about not being able to understand what this Wilder guy was on about, the message comes across loud and clear: though life will always be a struggle, the human will to survive ensures we’ll continue to make it through by “the skin of our teeth”. Of course, given the futility of the planetary condition and, frankly, the unlikeability of these immortal characters, that isn’t a wholly optimistic conclusion.
Lan’s company weather the epic nature of the piece well (and, at over three hours and two intervals, it’s epic in more ways than one). Varma is delectable as Sabina, while David Troughton makes a bumptious George Antrobus, inventor of the wheel and the alphabet, Maureen Beattie suffers gamely as his put-upon wife, and Jonas Armstrong, as son Henry, bears the mark of Cain with passionate bitterness.
All in all, in Lan’s inventive production, The Skin of Our Teeth still feels anarchic and urgent, even if overly long and occasionally messy. “This would never happen at the National … or the Donmar,” whines Varma, during a non-Sabina aside. Perhaps not. Thank God we have the Young Vic then.