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When greed was still good

Unlike his more didactic work, David Hare's latest play, about the Blair premiership, is a skillful

Gethsemane, David Hare's 14th original play for the National Theatre (surely a case for the Competition Commission), has the luck to appear topical and the misfortune to have been overtaken by events. Just as George Osborne was being splattered over the papers in sentences that included the incriminating words Russian, oligarch, yacht, luxury and funding, the National was advertising Gethsemane on its website with a statement of the blindingly obvious - that "nothing is more important to a modern political party than fundraising. But the values of the donors can't always coincide with the professed beliefs of the party." Yet, although Gethsemane's subject is superficially up to date, the audience soon realises it has been wheeled back in time to the premiership of Tony Blair, an age before City money ran out, when greed (the main parties agreed) was still good. As with Stuff Happens, Hare's Iraq play, this is an examination of where new Labour went so wrong. And, you might well say, to hell with Osborne; who can ever get enough of that?

Happily, and appropriately, perhaps, for a play with a biblical title (though still slightly surprisingly to me), there is a divine spark about Gethsemane that brings much of yesterday's controversies alive. Contradicting my theory that Hare is at his most reliable - as in Stuff Happens, The Permanent Way, Via Dolorosa - with his research notes by his side, Gethsemane is a work of "pure fiction" and his best for some time. True, the real-life parallels are clear: the prime minister is a Blair figure whose lair features an exercise machine and a drum kit (a guitar would have been too obvious); the home secretary is a female Jack Straw (with a troublesome daughter, rather than a son) who, like Tessa Jowell, is married to someone slightly iffy in business with an "innovative investment history"; Labour's opulent donor is a mix of Lord Levy and Harvey Weinstein. And yet, within minutes, we notice that the playwright has managed to remove these players from the national stage and reinvent them as characters in their own right on the National's.

Hare takes upon himself the reporter’s job of sketching a first draft

of history

They are led by Stanley Townsend's middle-aged, pigtailed party donor Otto Fallon, a record producer with whom the prime minister has become infatuated. He donates, it is explained, for one reason only: not out of ideology, not because he is fascinated by the machinery of power, not even for social kudos, but because he wants to live in a low-tax economy. For his part, the PM, Alec Beasley (Anthony Calf trying not to do a Blair impression), sees politics as a stepping stone to becoming as filthy rich as Otto.

The play obeys a rough-and-ready religious schema in which the Good Book equals some Platonic ideal of a Labour manifesto. It is a Garden of Gethsemane beset by devils: Alec, Otto and his deliciously unpleasant aide-de-camp (and I do mean camp), Frank Pegg (Pip Carter), for three. A fourth is a sleazy journalist, the crudely named Geoff Benzine, who has slept with the home secretary's teenage daughter and exposes her drug-taking. Adam James looks nonplussed playing this unlikely archetype, a "self-hating medievalist" who has drifted into journalism, "that disgusting profession", in Hare's and Howard Brenton's indelible phrase from Pravda.

The soul that these devils wish to tempt is the home secretary herself, Meredith Guest. Played with characteristically intelligent gusto by Tamsin Greig, she is a practical politician who wants nothing more than to run her department well but is distracted by the prime minister, the press and her daughter, Suzette. Suzette is another lost soul, victim of her mother's dedication. The drugs are a symptom of her unhappiness and her attention-seeking, a craving answered by her close relationship with her former teacher, Lori, an idealistic Marxist teacher-turned-humble busker. It is Suzette, however, who voices the moral of the play. The party faithful may find themselves in a Gethsemane of doubt after 11 years of Labour in government, but, like Jesus, they will just have to sweat it out.

Hare may be the best journalist ever to have chosen to write for the stage rather than the Guardian, but by taking upon himself the reporter's job of sketching a first draft of history, he puts himself in competition with the press. This is why Gethsemane, like so many other of his plays, contains an assault on it. He may lack the talent and perhaps intelligence to handle the bigger ideas that would make him a Shavian playwright, but here it doesn't matter. By craft, or the quality of the acting, or Howard Davies's fluent direction, or the law of averages, he has come up with a play that entertains throughout and contains many good, sharp jokes.

Once you leave the Cottesloe, the doubts rush back in. The plot is coincidence-ridden, overcomplicated and unlikely. Out of fear, if nothing else, of our new privacy laws, no journalist would write about the sex life of a 16-year-old. Why, if it were looking to avoid scandal, would a public school need to accept Otto's bribe of a new gym before it took the home secretary's daughter back? Hare's grasp of teenage idiolect is so slippery that Suzette claims that while at a party she "let four men take me" (a line better suited to a Victorian bodice-ripper). And, once again, he mistakes a pretty woman, in this case Nicola Walker as Lori, for a vessel to be filled with his idea of political virtue, an error he first made with Rebecca, the editor's wife in Pravda.

But, for the two and a half hours it lasts, Gethsemane works. For once Hare has become more interested in his characters than their/his political thoughts. The drama fully engages him; the latest Polly Toynbee column lies on his desk in Hampstead, unread.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times.

"Gethsemane" is at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1, until 24 February 2009 and thereafter goes on tour in the UK

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess