Theatre review: No room for compromise
Now playing at the National Theatre, touring the UK from March
Written by David Hare
Directed by Howard Davies
Starring Tamsin Greig, Anthony Calf, Jessica Raine, Stanley Townsend
David Hare is one of the UK’s preeminent playwrights. A recorder of modern British political life, his previous works have covered the privatisation of the railways (The Permanent Way), the Iraq war (Stuff Happens) and the legal system (Murmuring Judges). The problem is he doesn’t write entertaining plays, but dreary, overlong, didactic essays more suited to the pages of Prospect than the stage.
Gethsemane tells the story of corruption and scandal at the very top of a Labour government: fundraising by a flamboyant music mogul in return for unspecified rewards, a dope-smoking, gangbanging teenager and a HomeSecretary with a dodgy businessman for a husband. In amongst all the sleaze is a drum-playing Prime Minister, a cunning and manipulative special adviser and an idealistic former teacher. The audience soon learns, if they did not know already, David Hare does not do subtlety.
The plot is sturdy and well-paced, albeit pedestrian in its analysis and tending slightly toward the ridiculous. Even though the plot lacks the sharp satirical bite of The Thick of It or Yes Minister, it is the characterisation and dialogue which truly let the whole production down.
The dialogue is clunky, plodding and unrealistic and would look amateurish in a student theatre, let alone the National Theatre. Characters proffer far too much information to complete strangers or acquaintances and nothing is left unsaid.
There is no nuance; there is no Pinter-esque pause that conveys far more than words ever could. It’s all served up for the audience to see in bright, twelve foot high lettering. Even the circumspection is polemical.
The characters are generally two-dimensional at best, lifted straight out of the box marked ‘Oxford Collection of Political Stereotypes’. Everyone is either snarling, ruling class and indifferent or a doe-eyed naive idealist.
The only exceptions are the fundraiser Otto Fallon and his assistant Frank Pegg, although this probably owes more to the actors (Stanley Townsend and Pip Carter respectively) than the writing.
The cast do the best they can with this work, and the mix of experienced performers (Tamsin Greig, Nicola Walker and Daniel Ryan) and new faces (Jessica Raine, Pip Carter) stop the evening descending into total drudgery. They provide a few laughs where they can eke it out of the script, but it is a shame to see clearly talented actors wasted in this way.
The set design and lighting is notable, however. Quick scene changes and multiple locations can sometimes mean a bare stage and minimal props, but the crew use the National’s Cottesloe Theatre to effectively and efficiently convey a sense of time and place in each scene.
In David Hare’s world, there is no space for compromise: Labour governments must be unsullied by such base considerations as money and power. If they do find themselves tarnished by the real world, they must spend a lifetime in opposition, where they can remain ideologically pure, even if they cannot actually do any good.
Where in his work is the complexity of the human condition? Where is the humour that gets us through the day? Gethsemane is admittedly not all bad, but with a sharper script it could have been so much better.