HARE'S BREADTH

The greatest playwright of his generation, or just a case of Hare today, gone tomorrow? As David Hare celebrates his 50th birthday with `Amy's View', Matthew Sweet canvases opinions
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The Independent Culture
David Hare has just turned 50. Next year is his thirtieth in the theatre, and for much of that time he's been one of our most prolific and popular writers. In recent years his work has dominated the stages of the National Theatre in a manner equalled by few of the dead playwrights in the repertoire. He's an accomplished film and theatre director, and his mantelpiece must be caving in with the number of awards he's picked up for his work: Baftas, Oliviers, and Golden Bears.

1997 has brought the kind of success that must have begun to seem rather routine to him. His film of Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner has been an art-house hit in the US; his translation of Chekhov's Ivanov ran at the Almeida to universal acclaim and toured to Moscow; his new play, Amy's View, opens at the Lyttelton later this month; and he's about to direct a revival of Shaw's Heartbreak House. Things couldn't be better.

Over the last few days, I've been discussing David Hare with his friends and colleagues, and their admiration for him is uniformly high. He's wonderful company, they say. He cares about society, they say. He understands people, they say. And it suddenly struck me that one of the reasons why I've always felt a little uneasy about his theatre is that it's always buoyed up by a sea of praise that is as extravagant as it is uncritical. That's not to say that his fans are wrong, but more than anyone writing in the theatre, Hare is somehow above criticism, like Thora Hird or the Queen Mother. For dissent, you have to look to mavericks like Steven Berkoff: "I nipped into the Cottesloe and I couldn't even hear what they were saying," he complained of Racing Demon. "It began with an actor saying, `Oh God, I don't know what to do.' There was no viscera." Berkoff may just be lamenting Hare's lack of interest in yelling or butchery, but these comments point up the middle-class safeness of his work.

Theatre is now a bourgeois institution, nowhere more so than at the Royal National Theatre. Making a trip there, quarterly, is as much a part of being middle-class as reading a broadsheet, disapproving of McDonald's or being slightly suspicious of Tony Blair. And it's through attuning his writing to these sensibilities that Hare managed to adapt and to survive the 18 years of Conservative government while other playwrights of his generation fell into obscurity and academic teaching posts. He's perfected a theatrical product precisely judged to connect with a liberal, university-educated audience repelled by the excesses of Thatcher, Murdoch and Maxwell, but no longer excited by plays about the Chinese revolution. And although Hare has spent most of his career mining our doubt about British institutions - the Labour Party, the Church of England, the Law, the Press - he's become an institution himself, perhaps one that's in need of review.

In the process of applying himself to these issues, Hare's writing has risked becoming a form of institutionalised debate. Go along to a performance of one of his plays and you'll hear some fascinating arguments from the mouths of some our country's best actors. But shut your eyes and you'll miss little, because there's nothing very theatrical about his works: that's why they adapt so easily into other media, and why his audiences like to buy a copy of the script to take home. His dialogue may be good cud for chattering-class dinner parties to chew, but his plays are extremely conventional, well-made in the manner of Edwardian drawing-room moralists such as Granville Barker or Galsworthy. Theatrical experiment - and the creation of a sense of modernity - is generally the job of his designers.

It's a terribly attractive form: intellectual problem plays fronted by well-educated, glittering actors. Penelope Wilton, Diana Rigg, Juliet Stevenson are blazingly clever women who not only locute the well-turned rhythms of his sharper dialogue with fine sensitivity, but who can also commute their own intelligence into clunkier passages that would seem contrived in the mouths of anyone but Penelope Wilton, Diana Rigg or Juliet Stevenson.

Hare's instinct is to use his characters as carriers for opposing Points of View. It's something that A-level students studying Racing Demon rarely fail to spot. His use of women as voices of moral reason is one of his recurrent devices, and unrelenting application of the formula has produced its hits and misses: two-dimensional ciphers like Irina Platt in Murmuring Judges, and more sophisticated spokeswomen like Kyra in Skylight. It's at its most uncomfortably obvious in Pravda, where the "left-wing wife" Rebecca is the lone voice of liberal good sense against the repulsive reign of a Murdoch-like newspaper proprietor, Lambert Le Roux. But the technique is one that reproduces a somewhat Victorian conception of woman-as-conscience that operates as a substitute for any more genuinely feminist project. Hare puts his women on pedestals, never allowing them to behave as badly as his men. "Cultural cross-dressing," as Elaine Showalter would say.

Maybe it's time for us to think about Hare a bit more critically, to stop nodding in agreement with the consensus views negotiated by his characters, and interrogate his plays with the rigour that they interrogate other establishment institutions. Is his celebration of idealism any more real or broadly based than John Major's fantasies about cricket and warm beer? When a play like Skylight demands a kitchen set fully plumbed for water and gas so that an actor can cook a meal on-stage, perhaps we should wonder whether this is naturalism gone mad, as gratuitous and distracting in its own way as the helicopter in Miss Saigon or the spectacles of Victorian theatre. Perhaps, if we go along to the National to see his new play, Amy's View, we should go with enthusiasm, but also ask ourselves who it's been written for.

! `Amy's View': Lyttelton, SE1 (0171 928 2252), previews from Fri, opens 20 Jun.

THE DIRECTOR

Max Stafford-Clark produced Hare's earliest work at the Traverse Theatre; they co-founded Joint Stock in 1974.

When we did Fanshen we believed in its politics, but to believe in them today would be ridiculous. David is very flexible, and he can achieve that balance between integrity and reflecting the beliefs of this generation and age. If you look at what's happened in politics, the Labour Party have shifted their views and rightly so. So too must the artist, you can't remain locked into the political beliefs of one particular decade. Unless you want to end up a dinosaur.

There was a generation of Royal Court playwrights that was too intimidated to write about the middle classes. I think my generation was responsible for showing that liberal and middle-class concerns were important. David Hare is middle-class himself and that background is part of him. All of us have not exactly penetrated the establishment, but we know it pretty well.

It's difficult to say whether he'll be performed in 50 years' time. When I was at university I used to think that Brendan Behan was the cat's pyjamas. No one can write for posterity - but if someone in 200 years' time wants to know what it was like today they can refer to David's plays as a map of the world.

THE ACTOR

Tim McInnerny blew his head all over Vanessa Redgrave's kitchen in Wetherby, and was directed by Hare in Pravda. He opens in The Provok'd Wife at the Old Vic later this month.

David's got a very English reserve and a coolness that he keeps even when his political themes have great heat. And he has a tremendous confidence in his own ability. When we were doing Pravda I was looking at one of my speeches and I said, "David, there's a huge emotional leap here in three lines of dialogue," and he just said, "Yes, I know." Pravda had a cartoonish quality to it, it was bigger and brasher than some of his others, partly because it was about this Murdoch and Maxwell kind of journalism, people you can't necessarily deal with in subtle terms. He's fascinated by the whole backstage process. We once found him sitting in the wings during a performance of Pravda, wide-eyed, like a little boy. He has a child-like enthusiasm for theatre as well as intellectual rigour.

The first play of his I saw was Teeth `n' Smiles. Since then his work has got more sophisticated, but it hasn't become more oblique. It's still very clear where his heart lies. But I don't think he'd be interested in writing a play that wasn't political in some way. There's a dearth of political theatre at the moment - it's only David who writes these state-of- the-nation plays. There used to be more of them when people had more optimism. Maybe they got ground down.

THE DESIGNER

Bob Crowley designed all three plays of the Establishment Trilogy, as well as David Hare's production of The Designated Mourner. He is currently working on Amy's View.

He's very visual and this sometimes throws up problems in so far as he writes very filmic stage directions. I'll never forget the first time I read the end of Act One of Murmuring Judges, which read something like, "A taxi pulls up outside the Royal Opera House, and out come two very glamorous people. They walk up into the foyer, go up the grand staircase and into the crush bar, then take their seats in the auditorium. The curtain goes up on a production of The Magic Flute." And we did it.

Because Amy's View deals with the theatre itself, I've been careful not to over-theatricalise it. At the same time David's written a classic drawing- room comedy-tragedy, and you have to adhere to the form, but I'm pushing to make it look more poetic. The trilogy inhabited a huge landscape, especially the second two plays. We tried to find a theatrical metaphor for each one of them, and doing something like basing the design of Racing Demon on a cross really liberated the play - much better than wheeling on a load of vicars' living-rooms. But his characters are so strong that they can exist in much more abstract settings.

THE ACTRESS

Stella Gonet appeared in Richard Eyre's production of Racing Demon. She is now playing Kyra in the touring version of Skylight.

We worked with David for two weeks on Skylight because Richard [Eyre] was busy on King Lear, and he guided us through it beautifully. He loves actors and he loves watching them find their way through his plays, and it's great to have the author in rehearsal. I've just come from the RSC and there have been many times when I thought, "what exactly do you mean here?" Now I can just ask. I think David's work bears comparison to Shakespeare: there are times when Kyra reminds me of Titania or Isabella. He has an iambic pentameter of his own: it's very distinctive, and there's a very definite way to play it.

He writes fantastically well for women, and that's a challenge because he makes them the heart and the soul of the work. The responsibility of delivering all that can be very daunting - he gives you every passion to play, and the whole physical thing of getting through it can be exhausting.

Skylight is the sort of play that grows and develops as you continue to perform it. The first week I was running on sheer nerves but now I feel I've got the music of it and understand the pulse of it - understand what David's getting at. It's like delivering a wonderful piece of music.

THE ACTOR

Bill Nighy first worked with David Hare on the TV play Dreams of Leaving, and has since acted in Hare's King Lear, Pravda and A Map of the World. He appears opposite Stella Gonet in Skylight.

People in David's plays speak like what you hear people speak in real life. The actor Stephen Moore, who's a great interpreter of David's work, says that the trick to it is learning to say the word "well" in 500 different ways. As a director, he takes a very strong line on his work, but has the confidence to allow you to interpret freely. The script isn't set in stone, but it does arrive in the rehearsal room as a finished product. Everyone gets a good part in a David Hare play even if it's a very small one.

And his audiences get the opportunity to re-evaluate a broad range of issues: you get your whole system thrown up into the air and then you see how it lands. In 50 years time there will be lots of productions of David Hare plays. I'd be amazed if they didn't survive. If you wanted a document of the last 30 years you could do a lot worse that check them out: they're works of great beauty and wit, works that go beyond the particular politics of the time. They're deeply moving and extremely modern in a way that a lot of new writing just isn't. And he tells the best jokes I've ever heard.

THE ACADEMIC

Dr Nick Shrimpton lectures on modern drama in the English Faculty of Oxford University.

David Hare was one of a number of left-wing political playwrights who flourished in the Seventies. They were agitprop writers at base, and agitprop is about consciousness-raising; its business is to make a left-wing government more left-wing. Which was fine under a Labour government in the 1970s. But when you get a right-wing government, the form doesn't work, because it's no good for arguing with opponents who have a coherent set of ideas. That's why this sort of theatre largely died out in the Eighties - there was little point in trying to raise Mrs Thatcher's left-wing consciousness because she doesn't have one.

But Hare doesn't quite fit that pattern because he's survived the Eighties. And that's because he writes much more conventional plays. He was never really any sort of Brechtian, apart from early on in his career, and then he switched to being a realist, Ibsenite playwright, writing these problem plays which he churns out rather efficiently.

THE POLITICIAN

Mark Fisher, MP, Minister for the Arts.

I've known him for over 20 years, but he has no special relationship with the Labour Party. We need playwrights to be completely independent - it would be very worrying if they were anything else. The Absence of War was an interesting viewpoint on the 1992 general election, and the John Thaw character was very directly associated with Neil Kinnock. That's not the way that Racing Demon or Murmuring Judges worked: they were more about the issues and the ideas, and The Absence of War was not of a piece with them. Theatre can be a force for political change, but the changes that plays wreak in us are about questioning your relationship with society, changes which leak into your mental and emotional bloodstream. You don't come out of a play and say, "Well, now I think differently about the general election" - that's what journalism is for. But a really good playwright, a Hare, a Griffiths, a Miller ... their work changes your view of yourself. As someone who'd describe himself as not having much faith, Racing Demon made me turn my attention to areas that I don't examine with as much rigour as I ought. !

A LIFE IN THE DRAMA OF DAVID HARE

1968 After completing an MA at Jesus College, Cambridge, Hare forms the Portable Theatre Company with Tony Bicat. For the next five years, they tour with productions of their own work and plays by Howard Brenton and Snoo Wilson.

1969 Hare becomes writer in residence at the Royal Court (and stays there until 1971): "I thought the political and social crisis in England in 1969 so grave that I had no patience for the question of how well-written a play was."

1970 He marries television producer Margaret Matheson, and takes up a one-year residency at the Royal Court. His play Slag opens at the Hampstead Theatre.

1973 Portable and its subsiduary, Shoot, go bankrupt. Hare takes up a one-year residency at the Nottingham Playhouse, where he and Brenton collaborate on Brassneck, and goes to Vietnam for the BBC.

1974 Hare hits the big time with Knuckle, a play about three women teachers who give up sex as a protest against patriarchy. It premieres at the Oxford Playhouse.

1975 Hare accompanies Knuckle to New York. As he leaves, his agent, Peggy Ramsay, gives him $2,000, with the advice "Buy yourself a girl". (Five years earlier, one reviewer of Slag had commented: "a lot of the things about how women feel are guesswork." Hare is one of the founders of the Joint Stock Theatre Company, for which he writes Fanshen, a generally positive portrait of the Chinese revolution. "The theatre is the best court society has," he says.

1978 The premiere of Plenty is Hare's first sustained examination of middle-class sensibilities, and marks the beginning of a long association with the National Theatre. "Astonishing" is the Guardian's judgement.

1979 Hare wins a Bafta award for his TV play Licking Hitler.

1980 He directs Dreams of Leaving, a TV film he wrote during the breakdown of his first marriage.

1983 Four years after the script is completed, Thames TV screens Saigon: Year of the Cat, Hare's take on the Vietnam war. A Map of the World is produced at the National.

1984 Hare becomes associate director of the National.

1985 Wetherby is his first film as writer-director.

1986 The Bay at Nice and Wrecked Eggs occupy the Cottesloe and Hare's production of King Lear opens in the Olivier, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role. The film of Plenty, with Meryl Streep, reaches the cinema.

1988 The Secret Rapture, with Penelope Wilton, is "a major event and a special pleasure," according to the Financial Times.

1990 Racing Demon, with Oliver Ford Davies and Stella Gonet, is the first of the Establishment Trilogy. "It's a mark of the play's excellence that, unlike the idealist, it tries to view matters from everyone's perspective," says the Independent.

1992 Murmuring Judges satirises the judiciary. The Times identifies "A crusading radicalism and, at times, a maddening priggishness. A deft humour and a weakness for moralising caricature. A preoccupation with the complexities of idealism and realism, conscience and compromise." The IoS dismisses his screenplay for Damage (adapted from Josephine Hart's novel) as "a frosty, one-emotion-at-a-time affair that never comes close to thawing". Hare marries fashion designer Nicole Fahri.

1993 His political parable The Absence of War stars John Thaw as tragic hero George Jones, a Labour leader heading for electoral defeat. "It shows me as an arsehole," lamented Neil Kinnock.

1994 Hare writes the film version of The Secret Rapture, which stars Juliet Stevenson. "Everything that worked in the theatre has been lost here," comments the Daily Mail.

1995 In the Daily Telegraph, Hare writes that people should stop knocking the "fundamentally decent" John Major. The Tory-critical Skylight opens to rave reviews, the Sunday Times sensing that "a dramatist of the first rank is writing at full stretch, in complete command of his material, undogmatic and unafraid, unforgiving but compassionate".

1996 Hare directs Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner at the National.

1997 Jonathan Kent directs Hare's translation of Chekhov's Ivanov at the Almeida; it stars Ralph Fiennes. Hare's film of The Designated Mourner is a surprise hit in the US. He writes on the election for the Telegraph, revising his opinions of John Major. Richard Eyre directs Amy's View at the National.

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