Tim McMullan (Mendoza) & Ralph Fiennes (John Tanner). Photo: Johan Persson/National Theatre
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George Bernard Shaw and David Hare: the political theatre that gets better with age

George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman and David Hare's The Absence of War have an ideology that speaks to today's politics.

Man and Superman
Lyttleton Theatre, London SE1

The Absence of War
Sheffield Crucible and on UK Tour
 

One measure of impact is whether writers bestow an adjective: Shakespearean, Chekhovian, Brechtian or Pinteresque. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), a contrary type, is immortalised fittingly by a term that does not quite contain his name. “Shavian” drama, which turns on ideological debate, remains a powerful theatrical “life force” (an important concept for the playwright) three-quarters of a century after his death.

Tom Stoppard’s latest play, The Hard Problem, which sets rationalists against the religious, is very much a Shaw thing, and David Hare (who challenges adjectival memorial – Harite? Hairy?) repeatedly sets two viewpoints in passionate opposition, as in his 1993 play about Labour Party politics, The Absence of War. A revival of the Hare at the same time as a new National Theatre production of Shaw’s 1903 drama, Man and Superman, offers an intriguing conjunction of Shavian and neo-Shavian plays.

Man and Superman borrows its title from Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch and its plot from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but flips the sexual dynamics so that Shaw’s hero, Jack Tanner, is a nervous and virginal man at the mercy of attempted ensnarement by a woman. Unusually, because it takes almost five hours to perform its four acts, Man and Superman exists in two versions. A three-act anti-romantic comedy featuring Jack and Ann, intermittently done as a West End star vehicle, omits the fantastical “Don Juan in Hell” sequence, in which Jack, kidnapped by brigands on a motoring holiday in Spain, dreams he has become Mozart’s hero and is debating with Satan.

Simon Godwin’s production attempts the entire text, but trims it to a relatively Beckettian three and a half hours and moves it to a sort of modern day, in which there is one mobile phone but a left-wing writer has a uniformed chauffeur. Judiciously cut, the non-romcom scenes are still funny enough but the optional debate in Hades proves unmissable: a soaring forum of ideas about evolution, revolution and religion in which Jack/Juan’s long, linguistically and philosophically twisty arias are answered with wry one-liners from the Devil, tremendously portrayed by Tim McMullan as a slippery, Wildean wit.

Ralph Fiennes, easily and charmingly in command of one of the longest parts in drama, remains vocally clear even at high speed and is also physically thoughtful; when Jack takes off on one of his rhetorical flights, the actor contorts his torso and limbs, making literal the idea of posturing or being a poseur. As Ann, Indira Varma projects a sensuality and intellect that Jack cannot resist. A dramatist at risk of being written off as a windbag is given second wind in a production that makes thinking thrilling.

Hare made his Shavian interests explicit by directing a production of Heartbreak House, Shaw’s 1919 state-of-England play, in the 1990s, a decade when he wrote a trilogy of his own that included The Absence of War (touring until May). It features George Jones, a reformist Labour leader admired for his oratory but doubted on his economics, who loses to a weak Tory leader after being mocked by tabloids and doubted in his own party. The dramatist had spent the 1992 election on Neil Kinnock’s battle-bus.

Hare said in a recent interview that he prefers directors not to update his plays: in Jeremy Herrin’s version, political news flickers on Ceefax and the fictional Labour politicians express fears that their party will never return to government. Jones’s 1990s problems with the media and colleagues are, however, more or less those of Ed Miliband. And Hare’s depiction of a great public speaker who is forced to be careful what he says makes you think of Barack Obama and all the other modern politicians silenced by a digital audience always looking for the wrong end of the stick. Reece Dinsdale’s Jones is sensibly a sort of Everyleader, and subtly shows how the man has become two different people in public and private.

The best scene is the most consciously Shavian: exhausted at the end of a day’s separate campaigning, Jones and the smoothly superior shadow chancellor (Gyuri Sarossy) meet in an aircraft hangar to argue the merits of party discipline and the pursuit of power over ideological rigour. It would make uncomfortable viewing for Miliband, but also for Cameron and Clegg.

Grown free from its presumed Kinnockian roots, The Absence of War proves, after last year’s triumphant revisiting of Skylight, another of Hare’s assertions: his plays usually improve on revival. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution