First produced in 1993, David Hare’s The Absence of War centres on a pleasant but unconvincing leader of the Labour party who fails to win a general election – again. Is this ringing any bells? In the previous year, the pleasant but unconvincing Neil Kinnock snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the general election – again, having failed to win as Labour leader in 1987 as well. And here we are in 2015, with the Labour party led by the pleasant but unconvincing Ed Miliband, and there’s a general election due on 7th May. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the nine-venue tour that starts this week in Norwich will finish on 2nd May.
George Jones, the aforesaid (fictitious) Labour leader has a natural ability to rise to the top through his sheer strength of personality, but he has surrounded himself with a team of advisers who tell him what he can and can’t say (people like the word “fairness” but they’re not so keen on “equality”), what he should and shouldn’t believe, and what he must and mustn’t do. He’s running around on auto-stifle. There’s something of the Shakespearian tragic hero about him; he has vision, sociability, kindliness and bravery; he is decent to the extent that it works against him, maintaining loyalties where he should be suspicious. And despite all his good works and good intentions, you know that, at the end, he will be found wanting. There is no surprise, victorious ending; he is destined to fail. For him, it is a personal tragedy. Jones is a cultured man, a charismatic man, an inspirational man; but in the final analysis he lacks the ruthlessness and sheer hunger for power that a successful party leader requires.
It’s more than a little appropriate that this co-production between Sheffield Theatres, Headlong and the Rose Theatre Kingston should start its life at the Crucible. For it was in Sheffield that Neil Kinnock held his famous pre-election rally, culminating in his over-animated, over-passionate and over-confident appearance at the podium, where he shouted interminably “We’re Alright!” several times before saying anything of consequence; and it is widely held that that is where he lost the election. But George Jones is no Neil Kinnock. When he is encouraged by the election campaign manager to deliver a powerful, sincere, no-notes, from the heart speech from his podium, he starts off all emotional and idealistic, giving the rally just what they want. Then he just blanks; he can’t think of another fire in the belly thing to say; he scrabbles around for his notes and looks totally incompetent. If this were a job interview, and he was required to do a presentation as part of the selection process, he’d be back on the dole faster than you can say Downing Street. It’s a brilliant piece of theatre, mind you; your toes curl in cringing embarrassment.
David Hare’s play is immaculately structured, starting and ending with the traditional Armistice Day ceremony at the Cenotaph; at the beginning with Conservative PM Charles Kendrick leading the floral tributes, followed by George Jones; and at the end, Kendrick is still the PM, but is Jones still the leader of the opposition? We’re then taken to Jones’ private office, where new publicity officer Lindsay Fontaine is bursting at the seams to make him electable, despite the distrust of other members of the team, including his intimidating political adviser Oliver Dix and his personal minder Andrew Buchan. A TV switched permanently to the Ceefax page (what a wonderful trip down memory lane to see one of those again) flashes political news, including the sudden announcement of the General Election, which catches the Labour party unawares; George Jones is rightly furious that it means he will have to miss seeing Hamlet that night. The Ceefax page also occasionally shows the weather, which is a nice touch. TV cameras concentrate on the pompous Prime Minister, always accompanied by his silent wife, at his side like a faithful hound, and we too see the simultaneous TV broadcast of him outside No. 10 (another nice touch). A campaign strategy is rapidly assembled; old hands like Vera Klein (she’d probably be the equivalent of a Barbara Castle figure) turn up to the dismay of the entire team (except of course that George Jones is far too decent and polite to kick her into touch); no one really knows what they’re doing, but somehow things fall into place. We go into the interval with a sense that the campaign has started, and, despite complete disarray backstage, it’s not looking at all bad.
After the interval Sauvignon Blanc, you quickly realise that all the positives that have been mounting up in Act One are about to get knocked down in Act Two. A thrilling “live” TV debate with Rottweiler broadcaster Linus Frank goes badly wrong as Jones is side-swiped with a question about Mortgage Interest Relief at Source. Remember MIRAS? So many things in this play remind you of the good old days; Gordon Brown abolished it in 2000. There’s a riveting showdown between George and his (allegedly) faithful cabinet colleague Malcolm, where George finally realises that his blue-eyed boy isn’t as faithful as he had thought – the scene got its own round of applause. Then there’s the end-of-campaign rally, where everything falls apart, and the final ghastly defeat, where the Labour leader even has to endure the humiliation of being rounded on by the tea lady.
Jeremy Herrin’s production is crisp and entertaining, making great use of the apparently “old technology” (like the Ceefax screens) and TV cameras; projecting the live rally action against the Labour banner is visually a very powerful effect. Bold colours on the backdrop fill the stage with a real sense of life and vigour, as well as reminding us of the association of specific colours with specific political parties. The cumulative excitement of the election campaign is well paced and full of dramatic power, even though you know it’s as doomed as Private Fraser in Dad’s Army. Mike Britton’s useful set relies on a few office desks, suggesting functionality rather than lavishness, and uses screens and blinds to suggest further activity at the back of the stage whilst largely leaving the front free as a big acting space. And there’s an excellent cast who all portray their roles very convincingly.
Reece Dinsdale plays George Jones with charm, integrity and honesty, and just that touch of being flawed, as every good tragic hero should be. It’s a strong, serious central performance, and he really shines out in those big scenes like the showdown with Malcolm and the disastrous rally speech. But David Hare’s text provides many of the other characters with some of the best quips, as they pass judgment on the action, and their leader, from the side-lines. Cyril Nri plays political adviser Oliver as a hardworking, quick to ire, slightly larger than life character – you’d imagine he’d be a difficult boss, and you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. Another solid performance, maybe a little underplayed at times, but very credible as a result. I really enjoyed James Harkness’ good-humoured performance as Andrew, George’s minder, projected into a world of cut-throat high flyers from what you sense is a very ordinary background: “Croissant? I’m from Paisley!” He very nicely gives the impression of someone who enjoys playing with the big boys, occasionally to get brought down a few pegs just to show he’s not as significant as he’d like to imagine.
Charlotte Lucas is excellent as publicity adviser Lindsay Fontaine, the new broom attempting to sweep clean in what she sees as a very backward looking office, and of course coming up against a lot of resistance en route. Gyuri Sarossy plays Malcolm as an untrustworthy cold fish – not inappropriately – he and his minder Bruce, played by Theo Cowan, coming across as the new brand of Labour, riddled with posh school mentality. They are the complete opposite of honest working class George, and Bryden, his campaign co-ordinator, played with down to earth gusto by Barry McCarthy. Maggie McCarthy (any relation?) gives great support as the long-suffering diary secretary Gwenda, as does Don Gallagher playing a number of roles including the condescendingly slimy PM, and the irascible argument manipulator Linus Frank. Amiera Darwish is a busy and sincere press secretary Mary, Helen Ryan excellent as the seen-it-all-and-would-rather-see-no-more veteran politician Vera, and Ekow Quartey gets some of the best laughs in the play with his deftly delivered vignette as George’s Special Branch protector.
“Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” So said the 17th century philosopher Spinoza. If this play is about the Absence of War, then is Hare arguing that it does not represent peace or benevolence, confidence or justice? And about what? The Labour party? Modern Britain? Democracy? Or just the flawed character of Jones? You decide! It’s an excellent, thought-provoking play, produced at a most timely moment, and performed with great conviction. We saw it on its last day in Sheffield, but now it goes on to Norwich, Watford, Bristol, Cheltenham, Liverpool, Glasgow, Oxford, Kingston and Cambridge, before we see whether George’s fate presages that of Ed Miliband in May.
P.S. Pet hate time. Last day of the show and they had run out of programmes! As Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, as I let out a disgruntled squawk, the usher who handed me a photocopied cast list beamed his most appeasing of smiles; but, for someone who’s kept all their programmes as far back as 1967, it’s a resource lost. I was tempted to rename the play The Absence of Programme, but that’s probably taking it a bit too far. Just one of my first world problems!