Lyttelton, National Theatre – until 31 January 2019
David Hare has chronicled Labour politics – and the state of the nation – for nearly half a century, brilliantly catching truths and tensions. This time his main theme is the difference between campaigners who become treasured heroes on limited issues – especially the NHS, which pushes everyone’s button – and pragmatic machine-politicians in government or opposition. With a certain ominous predictability, the politico Jack is a male lawyer, and the shining campaigner a woman doctor Pauline, saving her local hospital.
But it feels like a mess. We leap and fro over years 1997-2009-2018, with a revolving box of rooms which become, elegantly, a vast moving TV screen on which campaigner and politician offer fragments of interview. A press conference opens it, a spin doctor announcing that Pauline is not running for the Labour leadership (which, as in the daydreams of all right-thinking citizens and playwrights, is obviously not held by an immovable old geezer with an allotment and an army of Twitter trolls).
Then we whirl back to her student digs and a set-to with her boyfriend Jack, involving furious accusations about her promiscuity, his boozing, and how he made love to her in the wrong mood on Friday when they were both sozzled (a whisper of #MeToo here). So they break up, and she gets on with her essay on the oesophagus.
Next time we all meet it is 2009, Pauline has done a tracheotomy and is campaigning to save the hospital, Jack is married, a rising Labour candidate armed with the usual arguments about centres of excellence actually being safer. But they have no sooner met than hurtled into bed, then promptly fought again.
It’s Noel Coward’s Private Lives done grunge: no balconies or cocktail frocks but Sian Brooke as a ferocious ball of female rage in leggings and biker boots. She plays this not-entirely-likeable part with ferocity, gamine, tense, confident and fuelled by childhood damage: shouting, her trademark stance is hands on hips and body bent forward from the waist like a dangerously angry Principal Boy. Alex Hassall’s Jack has convincingly morphed from a drunken needy student boyfriend to a Blairy smartass keeping his nose clean with a Suitable Wife.
Joining the party is an agreeable young person called Meredith – Amaka Okafor – who admires the charismatic Pauline and fights FGM – another theme picked up and promptly ignored – and Joshua McGuire sweet as the hard tasked PR. But neither writer or director seems sure whether it is about an impossible personal relationship Coward- style, or politics. Especially when we are suddenly catapaulted back to the 1990s in a vignette of Pauline’s drunken dying mother, romanticising her violent late husband in a tangled squalor of bedding and bottles like something out of Tennessee Williams. Only with more shouting. Then we are at Westminster with nice young Meredith delivering the best lines of the play about how “these days the moral high ground is overpopulated territory” ,and politics is more about buffing up your own image than doing good.
An abrupt death happens -possibly just to move the plot along, for God’s sake – and to allow a Thick-of-It row between the ex-lovers who both want to lead the Labour Party. That is better, with some good lines and laughs and a brief lyrical speech about ducks at dawn which felt like the human Hare awakening at last again. But I have rarely seen one of the great man’s plays so grievously in need of more work, more focus.
nationaltheatre.org.uk. to 31 jan
In cinemas 31 Jan
Sponsor Travelex. (£15 seats)
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