Castigating conservatives on stage is now mandatory—This House at the National doesn’t, and so succeeds
Where, I wonder, will political theatre take us in 2013? In 2012, the clear victor was a play that took us through a 40-year time portal, while reveal- ing the eternal verities of Westminster’s little ways. James Graham’s This House at the National exudes attention to detail as it charts the Labour government’s battle for survival from 1974 to 1979, with a minority government, wobbly leaders and the fate of parliamentary votes in the hands of tiny groups of backwoodsmen and puppeteer whips.
We care more about this than we did, per- haps, as the Cleggeron coalition reels uncertainly into the new year and the prospect of outright Tory victory in 2015 recedes. Cracking, unsentimental direction from Jeremy Herrin, who brought such a tender eye to the class, sex and political frissons of the 1960s in David Hare’s South Downs, makes This House shine. The political bruisers are headed by Philip Glenister taking his Life on Mars persona into the knuckle-duster whips’ office with such evident affinity for the period that I half-expected to find David Bowie in the charts and an Audi Quattro revving up outside afterwards.
The National Theatre often gets it in the neck (not least from me) for predictable tracts on global warming, military interventions and a tendency to mistake the Occupy movement for a serious political force. But in staging Howard Brenton’s Never So Good a few years ago and Graham’s work now, it shows a keen understanding of the importance of theatre in keeping political memory and education alive.
This House transfers to the Olivier in February, a deserved boost to the main stage for the work of a writer who, from his plays on Suez and Margaret Thatcher’s formative years, has clung to the unfashionable idea that democratic politics and the people en- gaged in it are interesting—not just when there is a war or scandal to dissect.
Good luck matters in the theatre too and this production had an ill wind blowing in its favour, with the whips’ office at the heart of the action, just as Jack Weatherill’s contemporary avatar, Andrew Mitchell, found his short lease as Conservative chief whip ebbing away at Westminster. “You’re going to fall hard and fast—so start finding things to land on,” warns one of the steely enforcers, a lesson today’s accident-prone coalition dwellers might take to heart.
Meanwhile Nicholas Hytner, the Nation- al’s boss, has been railing about cuts to arts budgets. This is not new—indeed, the task of criticising cuts to the arts comes with the territory of heading a major theatre. I hap- pen to agree with him on the shortsighted- ness of consigning paltry off-cuts from the capital to Britain’s arts-starved regional centres. Not everything can or should emanate from London, which gets a lion’s share of the spending.
But he overdoes it when he lashes out at the “fiscal orthodoxy that is manifestly contradicted by the economic riches we deliver day in, day out”. I am happy to accept that theatres contribute to Britain’s success, though to argue “economic riches” you do have to subtract what is spent on you in the first place, not something he or other directors choose to dwell on. Worse, slamming “fiscal orthodoxy” is just a lazy way of saying you don’t like deficit-cutting because it hits your own fiefdom (if Sir Nicholas has be- come an expert on macroeconomic policy, I seem to have missed the transition).
Arts leaders who aspire to being heard by government in times like these had better make a more nuanced case than this windy rhetoric—unless they only wish to talk to one another.
It is possible that I liked the staging of Seventies Britain so much because today’s dramatists have such difficulty with Cameron and modern Conservatism, which they detest, without taking much trouble to understand. I must have sat through a dozen plays in the last year where the word “Tory” is used as a swearword, in the certain knowledge that it gets a cheap laugh.
This sort of unthinking bias emerged in the otherwise near-flawless Cinderella, the Hammersmith Lyric’s recent pantomime. Now you may say, if I go looking for political trouble at the panto, I will surely find it. But here was a production so sparkling and brilliantly conceived to appeal to all ages (peerlessly directed by Sean Holmes, the Lyric’s artistic director) that it deserved to avoid the bear-traps of predictability on this count. Writers Joel Horwood and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm deftly transformed Cinders (Julie Atherton) singing “All by Myself” into a number featuring a trio of partially-sight- ed rodents and a diminutive chap in a red pointed hat keening, “All blind mice, Elf,” with many other zany riches and acts of prestidigitation besides.
Yes, it was all zipping along so very mirth- fully, until the spate of wicked Taw-ree-and-privatisation jokes weighed down the back-end of the production.
My fairy godmother’s magic wish for 2013 is that the most gifted minds in theatre might spot potential for comic mockery a bit farther afield, just for the sake of variety. Ed Miliband is quite funny, when you take a look at him. Oh yes, he is.