David Hare's new play has been mistaken for great political theatre
A playwright would have to have a remarkably high opinion of himself to choose the word Gethsemane as the title of one of his plays. Even in this almost post-Christian country, the word still suggests what is most profound, tragic and numinous: Gethsemane is the garden where Christ watched and prayed all night in an agony of doubt, before accepting his coming self-sacrifice, and where his disciple Judas betrayed him with a kiss. To lay claim to one of the greatest stories ever told, as David Hare does in his new play Gethsemane at the National Theatre, is to risk an ignominious pratfall.
Hare can hardly be blamed for taking himself very seriously; most people do. He is a hugely prolific writer, seen by many as the brightest star in the British theatrical firmament, and adored by the left-liberal establishment. Notices of his Gethsemane actually appeared on the front page of the Guardian, in recognition of its great importance, and in the news sections of The Times and the Independent. Generally speaking, Hare is reputed to be as good as it gets on the English political stage.
In my view, though, this play, and very often Hare himself, represent precisely what is wrong with British political theatre – it is unsophisticated, uninformative and, worst of all, untheatrical. It is a waste of the great wealth of resources that have been so triumphantly amassed, in its actors, directors, designers, choreographers, coaches and schools.
However, it must be right for artists to be ambitious, even if they do overreach themselves, and Gethsemane does raise all sorts of ambitious questions. Its setting is very like the political court of Tony Blair, although Hare claims unconvincingly that the play is “pure fiction”. There is a woman Home Secretary, whose career is threatened by a flaky husband who is facing trial for dodgy dealing abroad and by an enraged daughter who takes drugs. There is a smarmy Prime Minister who plays the drums (not the guitar) and sees himself as deeply religious while proving himself to be amoral, cynical and mercenary. Very close to the PM there is a fundraiser who brings Lord Levy to mind. And there is of course the press, snuffling out scandals like tasty truffles. Some gentlemen of the tabloid press (in real life) are given to saying “you couldn’t make it up”. In the case of the Blair imperium you didn’t need to, and it seems that Hare hasn’t.
That period in our history – the real one, not Hare’s “pure fiction” – does invite serious artistic treatment. It was a long-drawn-out farce, or tragedy, depending on one’s original view of Blair and New Labour, in which the misplaced faith, hope and love of the idealistic Left in this country was systematically betrayed by New Labour – by its greed, corruption, vanity and intellectual vacuity. Naturally enough, the left-liberal establishment feels outraged, bereft and in desperate need of a new narrative, as such people say.
However, Gethsemane is not more than the narrative we already know; it is less. Seeing only a couple of Shakespeare plays would remind you that politics has always been a very nasty business. What is disappointing in Gethsemane is that the fictional characters are very much less theatrical and astonishing than their true-life doppelgangers. In the play, their roles are stereotypical and two dimensional, apart, at times, from the Home Secretary’s. Between them, they offer no explanation – moral, psychological or sociological – of why nearly every one behaves as badly as he or she does.
Hare expects us to find explanation and meaning in his use of the idea of Gethsemane. The stereotypical good woman of the play – the disillusioned teacher-cum-saviour of the minister’s abandoned daughter – refers twice to a sort of Gethsemane moment as central to why she has given up teaching for busking on the Underground. She describes it as her “moment of doubt”. And in a moment of truth, in the staff-room lavatory, she realises she had to stop all the form-filling and target-chasing and give up.
As the minister’s daughter points out to her, that is not exactly what happened at Gethsemane. Jesus did not give up; he “went through with it”. That’s true, but she too has missed the point of the story. What Jesus “went through with” was complete self-sacrifice for others. The good schoolteacher seems hardly likely to do that, or to be required to; indeed she has already abandoned her pupils. And the steely Home Secretary, who also has a long night of doubt, was wondering only how to survive politically – whether to dump her embarrassing husband or to be loyal to him despite the Prime Minister’s threats and so risk her career. All this seems to have very little to do with sacrificing oneself entirely for the good of others – even though trying to do good for others is a claim made by almost everyone in the play.
Hare’s general preoccupation with religion in this play seems to me rather incomprehensible. Gethsemane opens with a portentous monologue by the good schoolteacher. She kicks off by distinguishing between people who believe in a book in which all truth resides and “people without a book”. People like her, ie good moderate people who have questions rather than certainties are, she says, the people without a book. In the same spirit, Act Two begins with another woman’s monologue: “What worried me is the more sceptical the public becomes, the more devout its leaders. It’s like we take the least representative people among us… and we put them in charge.”
If this is intended to direct us towards some explanation of the Blair betrayals as driven by religion, then one can only really snigger. Plenty of religious believers, in all British governments, have not been “people of the book” in any literal sense. Most of Blair’s ministers and cronies were very far from fundamentalist Christians or fundamentalist anything. Their crimes and misdemeanours cannot possibly be explained by their devout adherence to the Bible. The only possible exception is Blair himself, whose behaviour may partly be explained by the feeling that he had a personal hot-line to God.
It might seem that there is little point in reviewing a bad play at any length. This review, however, is a protest not just against the play and its muddled, undisciplined thinking. It’s a protest against the uncritical mindset of an intellectual establishment which can mistake such work for great political theatre. The intellectual weakness and flabby political judgment of that establishment are responsible for the Blair imperium in the first place and the Brown disaster which accompanied it.