Tuesday 15 January 2019

I'm Not Running at the National, or, Neither of Them, Thank You

The issue play is a popular form at the National these days, and this is another in a lengthening line of indifferent ones. The state of the Labour Party and of the NHS are both topics which also seem to be in vogue. On the former we've had the flawed Labour of Love and the brilliant Limehouse, on the latter the recent Hallelujah! This play combines the two themes in an episodic treatment ranging from 1996 to 2018.

It is the decision to posit an actual Labour party leadership contest in 2018 which is at the heart of the work's problems. Firstly, historically, there wasn't one - and at the time there was frankly little sign there was going to be one. Secondly, the terms in which Hare imagines this fantasy leadership struggle emerging are so divorced from the actual history as to render the story deeply unconvincing. Hare posits a Blairite type centrist (so far so fair enough), against an independent woman who has only just joined the Labour party and who has made her political career on the single issue of being elected in Corby by opposing the closure of the NHS hospital there. Hare seems to be unaware that the defining issue of our politics in 2018 and indeed for several years prior to that was Brexit. Moreover recent general elections have decimated the minor parties and independents - our actual politics, contrary to one of the theses of the play, is becoming more tribal rather than less. He also ignores the actual character of the two most recent struggles for the Labour leadership - some glancing comments on the soul of the Labour party notwithstanding, there is an absence of engagement with the Corbyn-moderate battle which defines Labour at present. Had Hare set this debate during the Blair era, or towards its end, and rendered it a purer history piece it might have worked better - though even then the whole argument feels rather redundant in the context of our current political crisis. In sum, Hare seems to want to be making a comment on our contemporary political moment, but nothing really lands because the picture of that moment he constructs is increasingly divorced from reality.

Then there's the personal dimension of the drama. We are also asked to believe that the two candidates for the leadership - Jack Gould (Alex Hassell) and Pauline Gibson (Sian Brooke) were lovers at university and have continued in a love-hate relationship for the next twenty years. The play never convinced me about their connection - they're both pretty unpleasant people but, in particular, I felt that Gibson's behavior in the first scene was so harsh that Gould ought to have walked out of the door and never come back. Overall, the play never managed to make me really care about how they felt about each other. A further problem is that neither of them convinced me as potential candidates for the leadership - by the end of it I, at any rate, was quite clear that not only should neither of them be in charge but that I didn't believe that they would actually have been the only viable candidates in any leadership race - the play fails to substantially engage with how that might have happened instead simply asserting that it did.

There's a further general problem with Hare's style. For once in a modern issue play at least some debate between different perspectives is permitted, but this is poorly handled. Again and again characters are allowed to get away with statements in conversation that ought to be questioned by the other person on stage and aren't. The characters become too much vehicles for insufficiently critiqued positions rather than real individuals rowing with each other.

Hare suffers from another vice of contemporary writing - the apparent need to crowbar in glancing critiques on various other topics without having enough space to really explore them - the rather contrived segment relating to immigration, and the treatment of the public relations profession are good examples here - indeed why PR officer Sandy Mynott (Joshua McGuire) goes on working for Pauline is another rather crucial question the play never really gets to the bottom of (though he does bring a welcome energy to proceedings).

The person I ended up wanting to know more about is someone we never meet - Gould's wife Jessica. How has she come to marry him? Has she really no knowledge of his past with Pauline? What does she think about his political career? A play exploring that relationship and those questions could have been rather interesting.

The play is intermittently funny, but rarely in a freshly insightful way. Overall, it is too long, to a flawed purpose, unsatisfactorily realised.

A more dynamic staging might, perhaps, have lifted it, but Neil Armfield is another in rather a long line of Norris era directors in the Lyttelton who fails to handle this large stage effectively. The only piece of set (by Ralph Myers) is a single room on the revolve which has to double as so many spaces that I quickly ceased to really believe in the reality of any of them - notwithstanding the various pieces of furniture with which it is dressed. Because the bare back and side spaces of the theatre with the technical wires and lights are so visible it is very difficult to believe that characters are really going into bathrooms, or other rooms within the house. Off stage noises feel curiously unfocused - as if they're just generally emanating from the stage rather than from the specific off-stage room or street it is implied they're coming from. I also hope we're not entering a National era when revolveitis has moved from the Olivier to the Lyttelton. Jon Driscoll provides projections which afford further opportunity to listen to our two candidates make pronouncements but feel rather like a device to cover the scene changes the combination of which further slows down the action.

The ensemble is solid but rarely transcends the weaknesses of the text. It is very difficult, as Labour of Love demonstrated, to vary a character's age by various points within a twenty year span on stage, and insufficient distinction is created here - particularly in the case of Sian Brooke. After a while I felt these performers were just rather weighed down by the volume of text and the unwieldy narrative. Lisa Sadovy, in her one scene as Pauline's mother comes off best, bringing a welcome energy and venom to proceedings, and I'd have liked to see more of her.

Overall, this is another weak new commission from the National. It's not as bad as such turkeys as 2017's Common or St George and the Dragon but it doesn't seem to have grasped the nature of the current Labour crisis, and has little fresh to say on what it thinks that crisis is. One to avoid.

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