Do you remember what else was happening in the world in 2003? That was the year The Permanent Way premiered, ten years after The Railway Privatisation Act. It was also the year that the US, under President George Bush and supported by the UK under Prime Minister Tony Blair, invaded Iraq. What perspective could playwright David Hare offer then and now?
David Hare’s award-winning play is currently running in a provocative site-specific staging at The Vaults, London’s alternative subterranean venue beneath Waterloo Station, until 17 November 2019. Directed by Alexander Lass, it’s the play’s first major revival since its premiere, care of Out of Joint, in York and then at the National Theatre in 2003/4.
Revelatory, witty, and moving, The Permanent Way is an astonishing interrogation of the chaos arising from the botched privatisation of Britain’s railways. Told through the first-hand accounts of those involved at every level, from passengers to Civil Service mandarins, this extraordinary verbatim piece asks challenging questions of responsibility and governmental mismanagement. Have we learned anything from recent history?
With Max Stafford-Clark and the original Out of Joint company, Hare wrote the piece based on extensive interviews with those involved with and affected by railway privatisation and subsequent rail disasters. It was his first of three major verbatim dramas premiered at the National Theatre – Stuff Happens, about the Iraq War, and The Power of Yes, about the 2008 financial crash, followed in 2004 and 2010, respectively.
David Hare on The Permanent Way
According to Out of Joint production notes from the play’s premiere, David Hare‘s own summary of The Permanent Way changed during the process. In the first week of rehearsals, he described it as being simply “a play about rail privatisation”, in the second week, a play about “disillusionment of ‘Blairite’ Britain”, and by the third, he’d refined this to “a play about honour and dishonour”.
In a piece for the Guardian in November 2003, he mused more on the play’s wider implications and what it said about government, which, 16 years later, seem eerily resonant:
“There is, I suppose, a grisly fascination in seeing elected politicians blunder into situations from which any normal person would walk instantly away. (The popular term for such incidents is, by the way, “train crashes”.)…
“As this errantly peculiar and disturbing year has gone on, there have been two overriding questions dominating the voters’ attitude to politics, to neither of which has any very satisfactory answer yet been given: why are we increasingly witnessing circumstances in which – maybe from a cocktail of credulousness, special interest and ignorance – politicians embark on courses that everyone else can see in advance to be fatally flawed? And, more pressingly, what the hell can we do about it?…
“There is, beyond doubt, in the story of how British Rail was first auctioned off at bargain prices, to the fourfold profit of the City of London, a painful parable about the badness of British government. And in the failure of the following Labour administration to address the roots of the problem it inherited, you may also learn something instructive about the disconnection now so apparent between the political class and the people they were once supposed to be serving.”
David Hare on Alexander Lass’ revival
When this major new production of The Permanent Way was announced earlier this year, David Hare commented:
“It’s wonderful that Debbie Hicks and Alexander Lass are mounting the first London revival of The Permanent Way. In 2004, feelings were still very raw from the loss of so many lives in the crashes which followed privatisation of the railways. It will be fascinating to find a perspective on that mix of government incompetence and private greed today.”
The playwright also visited Alexander Lass and his nine-strong ensemble cast – Anna Acton, Jonathan Coote, Paul Dodds, Jacqui Dubois, Lucas Hare, Gabrielle Lloyd, Tej Obano, Sakuntala Ramanee and Jonathan Tafler – in rehearsals.
The Permanent Way runs until 17 November 2019 at The Vaults, Launcelot Street off Lower Marsh, London SE1 7NN with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets priced from £20. CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE!