“PERHAPS we all despair of politicians – but David Hare had special cause,” begins the programme note for the Headlong/Sheffield Theatres/Rose Theatre Kingston production of his 1992 play, The Absence of War, at Bath until Saturday 9th May. It was one of Hare’s trilogy that looked at the British establishment, along with Murmuring Judges about the law and the judiciary and Racing Demons about the church.
What Hare discovered in the first few days and weeks after his play had its National Theatre premiere, with John Thaw as the Labour leader George Jones, was that, unlike judges and senior policemen, bishops and vicars, (Labour) politicians don’t want to enter into a “serious dialogue” about how things could be better, what they get wrong and what we expect of them.
David Hare actually made these comments more than 20 years ago, but it is hard, listening to the backstabbing and negative campaigning of these past few weeks to believe that anything has changed (in any of the parties). The people who will go to the polls this week and the issues that actually affect their lives get lost in the jostling for media attention and the frantic desire to grab/hang on to power at all costs.
It was a brave and timely choice of play for election week and one that struck many chords with the audience. My colleague, who finds politics depressing at the best of times, commented: “It’s been the most interesting thing about this year’s election.”
George Jones (Reece Dinsdale) is an old-fashioned Socialist. He believes in things. He is a natural orator who can hold an audience spell-bound before erupting into cheers at the passion he communicates. But George isn’t “on message,” as we now call it. He doesn’t do economics. He is a hot-head. The party is grateful that he has made it electable, but at what price? He is surrounded by a (loyal) team who manage his every move, from the frenetic spin doctors Oliver and Andrew (Cyril Nri and James Harkness) to the devoted diary secretary (Maggie McCarthy), the anxious press secretary (Amiera Darwish) and the new publicity advisor (Charlotte Lucas).
George ought to be concentrating on defeating Tory Prime Minister Charles Kendrick (Don Gallagher – who also plays a series of Labour-supporting doctors and teachers and an oily media figure) at the ballot box, but instead he is watching his back, fearing betrayal by the Shadow Chancellor, the super-smooth Malcolm Pryce (a glacially effective Gyuri Sarossy) and his robotic adviser Bruce (Theo Cowan).
It all sounds horribly familiar, doesn’t it? This is a play and it’s fiction. The characters were created by David Hare, but they ring so true because Hare has skewered truths about politicians in general and Labour politicians in particular. The Absence of War predated Blair and Brown and New Labour by some years, but it shows us, with uncanny accuracy, where Labour is going. And look where it is now! It has a leader, elected (in preference to his better known brother, who was the choice of “senior party figures”) and that leader is undermined at every turn, his every minor gaffe exposed and exploited. Milliband is an intellectual, unlike Hare’s George Jones, but we know where this story is going.
This is a terrific and topical play. It is very funny, full of serious insights into the political mindset and in its way it is a tragedy. But, as Oliver comments, referring to George’s passion for the theatre, what some call tragedy, he calls failure. Now there’s a warming thought to take into a cold political future.