Verbal warfare

State of the nation plays like 1980s-set Hansard now have to compete with extraordinary real life drama

Theatre
Serve and volley: Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan in “Hansard” (©Catherine Ashmore)

A journalist friend of mine was invited to a Sunday lunch a few months ago in a prosperous middle-class home in the southeast of England. Inevitably the talk turned to Brexit. Most of the table were in favour. My friend pressed them on why they wanted to leave the single market, arguing that it was not in their economic interest to do so. Rather than engage with the details of tariff barriers and trade deals, one of the guests, a man in his early sixties, banged the table and exclaimed: “What you need to understand is this country isn’t what it used to be. The bloody vicar is a woman and she’s gay!”

I was reminded of this story as I watched Simon Woods’s Hansard at the National Theatre (until November 25). The curtain opens on a large Cotswold kitchen with a cream-coloured Aga, wooden refectory table, fireplace and Roberts radio. Moments later, a Tory MP played by Alex Jennings, bursts through the door announcing that he’s home for the weekend. What follows is an 80-minute verbal tennis match between him and his left-leaning wife, Diana, played by Lindsay Duncan. It’s witty and barbed, a homage to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, relocated to Middle England.

Hansard is set in 1988 but the arguments feel contemporary. That’s because the great Brexit divide isn’t really about the European Union, it’s about values. One imagines similar scenes playing out in the home of Jo Johnson before he resigned from his brother’s cabinet (he is married to Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman). Hansard’s fictional Tory MP, Robin Hesketh, is an old Etonian and a junior minister in the Thatcher government. His wife is furious with him because he has just voted in favour of the Section 28 clause in the Local Government Act, banning schools from promoting the acceptability of homosexuality. What angered her even more was listening to him defend the policy on Radio 4’s Any Questions.

Diana Hesketh accuses her husband and his party of pandering to the base instincts and prejudices of the British public. He hits back with: “In 20 years, no one in this country will be allowed to be a white hetrosexual male!”, at which point the man next to me in the stalls muttered “Hear, hear.” Gazing around at a the predominantly white, middle-class, middle-aged audience, I felt as if the playwright had put a huge mirror on the National Theatre stage. We were watching ourselves.

As an old Etonian, Simon Woods knows of what he speaks. A former actor, this is his first play and it is an assured debut. The characters feel authentic and in less than an hour and a half he takes the audience on a journey from comedy to tragedy with economy and a high degree of emotional intelligence. My quibbles: there’s a twist at the end which feels like an overly abrupt gear shift and a tendency to play to the gallery. At one point, Diana Hesketh remarks how mystified she is by “the insatiable desire of the people of this country to be fucked by an Old Etonian”. This got a roar of laughter; but it felt almost too easy.

In pure theatrical terms, Hansard lacks the verve and imagination of Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison which opened in the same week at the Old Vic. Based on a book by a Guardian journalist, Luke Harding, it is about the poisoning of the ex-FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko. In the hands of a lesser playwright, this could be fairly heavy going. But Prebble grasps both the complex politics and the absurdity of an otherwise tragic tale with a tone that shifts with the speed of a rotating disco ball. The hapless Kremlin hitmen are a burlesque comedy duo, Putin is a Bond villain who harangues the audience from the sidelines, while oligarch Boris
Berezovsky grasps the microphone and croons maudlin Russian ballads. Thrown into the mix are dance-sequences and life-sized Spitting Image puppets of Yeltsin, Gorbachev and Brezhnev. If you enjoyed Lucy Prebble’s Enron, you will love this.

It is hard these days for any play to compete with the real drama unfolding in Westminster. On the day Boris Johnson lost his first vote as prime minister, Radio 4’s Front Row reviewed the day’s proceedings in Parliament as if it were a play. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s lounging posture was deemed worthy of Oscar Wilde. One critic wondered if Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, could come back as a ghost to Boris Johnson’s Hamlet while another retorted that it was like watching a bunch of posh sixth-formers perform a bad school play with over-acting and knockabout panto villainy.

The ancient Greeks were the first to understand the importance of theatre as a way of understanding the thorny political and social issues of the day. And in plays such as Julius Caesar and King Lear, Shakespeare identified the sweet spot in drama as the intersection between personal and the political. Take that away, and you are left with empty agitprop. For many years we had to make do with David Hare explaining the State of the Nation on stage at the National Theatre. It is encouraging to see a new generation of British playwrights including Lucy Prebble, Simon Woods, Mike Bartlett (Charles III) and James Graham (This House) taking on the challenge.