THEATRE / A temporary suspension of disbelief: After God and the Law, David Hare has now put the Labour Party on stage. Paul Taylor votes on the new play's political correctness

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN David Hare's new play, The Absence of War, the character who is partly based on Neil Kinnock is shown to have a keen interest in the theatre and so he's jokily narked when the Tory prime minister calls an election on the very day he has booked to see Hamlet. His chief of staff views this hobby as a trying aberration and even blames it for one of the Rt Hon George Jones's less positive penchants: 'There's a side of him that likes to step back. It's the bloody theatre. He likes tragedy too much. I don't. To me, tragedy's just a posh word for losing . . .' If he's proposing to attend the play, you can only hope that Jones's real-life model shares these artistic tastes - for The Absence of War, though anything but flattering to its Kinnock-figure, at least pays him the compliment of suggesting that his position was near-tragic in its intractability.

This new piece completes Hare's trilogy of plays about British institutions that began with the Church of England in Racing Demon (1990), and continued with the judiciary and the police in Murmuring Judges (1991). Directed with a wonderful, fluent clarity by Richard Eyre, all three works are now in repertory at the Olivier, where they were unveiled on Saturday in a marathon session that began at 10.30am and finished 12 hours later.

A number of the actors, evincing as much versatility as stamina, feature prominently in all three productions. The matchless Michael Bryant, for example, surfaces as a heart-breakingly dignified gay cleric, forced to flee to Malta to escape exposure in a Sunday tabloid; as a judge, swaddled in suave, plummy complacency, who claims that he gets all the intimacy he needs with 'ordinary, common-as-muck individuals' in the courts; and as a Welsh hero of the Left who urges the Labour leader to step out of his media-packaging and speak to the electorate from the heart. Oliver Ford Davies, Richard Pasco, Paul Moriarty and Adrian Scarborough are others who turn in a succession of unfailingly vivid and involving portraits.

The writing and dramaturgy do not, however, maintain this level of consistency. The best piece, by far, is the first. With Racing Demon, Hare broke the habit of a lifetime. Here, the idealist is neither a woman, nor, in however qualified a way, the moral standard by which the rest of society is judged. Instead, the play pulls off a far more difficult feat. The fanatical young curate, excellently played by Adam Kotz, thinks the ability to see all sides of a question is merely dithering impotence. He wants to offer people simple religious certainties, not glorified social work. It's a mark of the play's excellence that, unlike the idealist, it tries to view matters from everyone's perspective, even his. Liberal tolerance is fine, but not, we note, when it becomes self-torturing diffidence.

Murmuring Judges, even in this revised version, feels like a throwback to old customs. The idealists, both women, are once again repositories of the play's values and have an enfeebling air of implausibility. The beautiful right-thinking barrister from Antigua (Alphonsia Emmanuel) now crusadingly berates her hidebound boss, Sir Peter Edgecombe QC, in a ringing West Indian accent, which makes it seem even less likely that such behaviour would be tolerated in a new recruit. Given that her father was a copper and that she's supposed to be a high flyer, PC Sandra Bingham, the play's other idealist, reacts with a quite bizarre degree of shocked disappointment when she discovers that her detective boyfriend has been planting Semtex to gain crucial information about forthcoming crimes. The play's most striking feature is the way Richard Eyre's staging, with its rotating back projections, stark juxtapositions, and jolting switches from the haunts of plush privilege to, say, slopping-out parades, creates a bleak sense of mutually uncomprehending worlds.

In The Absence of War, idealism has been long submerged beneath pragmatism, as traditionalists and reformists tussle over the problem of how to get Labour re-elected. When the Kennington-born, degree-less leader (superb John Thaw) eschews his notes at the Manchester rally and attempts to speak from the heart, he finds the words aren't there any more. The piece is framed by two Armistice Day scenes at the Cenotaph, and there's the definite impression that this generation of politicians, having never fought in a war, feels conscious of an inadequacy: unproved in action, unaffirmed in ideals.

Others will argue over the degree to which, say, the deputy leader is or isn't like John Smith, with his calculated aloofness, hard- headed scheming and inability to keep quiet about the hushed-up proposals for abolishing mortgage tax relief. But faction contrives to obscure your response to the more reflective, timeless elements. Thus, you find yourself wondering whether John Thaw's Jones would really have had Kinnock's problem wooing the female vote. Where the play scores is in its depiction of Jones's awkward position, having given his party electability, but not with him as leader. 'Why can't I speak what I believe . . ?' he screams, after the Manchester fiasco. But there's an edginess about belief itself in the play. The Labour party, argues Jones, doesn't have a clear binding force, such as money is to the Conservatives. Labour voters now have nothing in common 'except what they say they believe'. So it's the desperation of the gag that hits you when Jones, after defeat, suggests that their best chance is to join the Tory party and 'fuck it up'.

David Hare Trilogy: in rep at the National Theatre (071-928 2252)

(Photographs omitted)