Nothing feels as dated as the recent past. So you might think that it would not be a kindness to David Hare to revive, now, his 1988 play The Secret Rapture and to judge from Guy Retallack's dismal production at the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue, you'd be absolutely right. This is all the sadder because Hare is now rightly basking in the universal acclaim for his latest piece, The Permanent Way, a deeply incisive documentary drama about the criminal lunacy of rail privatization.
At its premiere, The Secret Rapture was hailed as a searching study of the way Thatcherism corrupted human relationships and as a powerful depiction of the conflict between the ethics of business success and the principles of personal loyalty. The original director, Howard Davies, must have done an even more brilliant job than he was credited for at the time. He gave, as I recall, a Chekhovian, elegiac dimension to the piece, haunting it with a stricken nostalgia for the more honourable world that had fallen to the acquisitive, asset-stripping barbarians. When, however, the play is presented in such an unsubtle and drably designed revival as this, its crudeness is, I'm afraid, horribly exposed.
Two overtly contrasted sisters are brought together by their CND-supporting father's death and they come to grief over what should be done for their youthful, wayward and alcoholic stepmother. For the play to work, we should feel ambivalent about both siblings. But the Tory junior minister, Marion (Belinda Lang) comes across as a shrill caricature of thrusting tidy-mindedness, shrieking lines like: "God, how I hate all this human stuff" - a fact which reminds you that one of Thatcher's malign effects was to drag oppositional art down to her own simplified level. As the virtuous sister, Isobel, a partner in a small design firm, Jenny Seagrove makes you reckon that a night on the tiles with Shakespeare's priggish Cordelia would be vastly more fun than a flirtation with this grimly righteous paragon of non-compromise.
Peter Egan is such a fine actor that he manages to hint at a sympathetic side to Marion's husband, Tom, the president of Christians in Business ("We try to do business the way Jesus would have done it"). The play, though, keeps descending into smugly triumphant point-scoring that might have felt elating in 1988, but makes you cringe with its cheapness now. Even the saintly Isobel gets in on the act. Describing how the stepmother plunged a steak-knife at an obstructive managing director's heart, she says: "It's fine. It's not a problem. He's an ad-man. His heart presents a very small target."
It's hard to credit any of the turning points in the plot, not least the sudden spiritual conversion of the Tory Marion after Isobel's murder. Maybe one day the time will be ripe again for this work. Meanwhile, if you want to take in a David Hare play this winter, make it The Permanent Way.
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