David Hare’s play, written after the failure of Labour’s general election campaign of 1992, was prophetic in regard to Tony Blair’s New Labour project and it also has resonance for Ed Miliband today. After its run in Sheffield, Jeremy Herrin’s latest production is due to tour ten provincial theatres in the run-up to this year’s general election. The staging is bare and Brechtian, as in places is Hare’s writing.
The play opens and closes with scenes at the Cenotaph, from brass band to D:Ream — the music echoes the changes George Jones has undergone. Initially Hare’s fictional Neil Kinnock-type Labour leader Jones has wit, charisma and ideals, in private at least. He employs military metaphors of courage and steel. By the end he is a broken man quipping that the Labour Party should all become Tories. In 1992 Hare was given exceptional access to Labour’s strategy meetings and this allowed for some astute foresight.
When I saw the play some of the acting lacked conviction. But it is early days and Reece Dinsdale was at times captivating as Jones. Moreover the direction was on occasions inspired. Tory prime minister Kendrick’s “absent wife” appears on screen but not stage, and TV screens are used to simultaneously set the play in time and doubly fictionalise the characters. This reminds the audience that we are watching a political play, and at the same time pictures the politicians as “media puppets”. It is a metaphor which is extended into a meeting of George and the ambitious Malcolm which is staged and lit in a way redolent of both an espionage thriller and shadow puppetry.
Interestingly the roles of Kendrick and the media pundit are played by the same actor. This is mirrored by the actor who plays the Barbara Castle-type character also playing the only real workers in the play.
Hare’s play is partly about mainstream politics being a show, an account rather than an accounting. Consequently the characters revel in the game they are playing particularly in the first half of the production which is played for laughs. This is contrasted with the second half which, rather mechanically I felt, turns to tragedy.
George’s misfortune is that when he honestly tries to express his politics, trammelled by years of hiding them, he is unable to do so. At this point Dinsdale’s acting does inspire sympathy, even though the failing is clearly the path George and those around him have vigorously pursued. I feel that Hare makes George too much of a victim of those that surround him, which is a rather romantic view of the role of a Labour leader.
Hare himself has repeated George’s line that “the Labour Party is the only practical instrument that exists…for changing people’s lives.” The Absence of War shows the consequence of where the “at any costs” argument leads: to tragedy. So for someone on the Labour left this play could be a disturbing challenge. For me it was an affirmation of the dead end that is reformism.