THEATRE / Great team, but no winner

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GEORGE JONES, the Labour leader in David Hare's The Absence of War, is a likeable chap: a man of the people with a zest for life outside politics and a heartfelt dedication to what an associate calls 'the caring issues'. Half-way through his election campaign he goes on television and is caught lying. Would Labour abolish mortgage tax relief? No, says George; then splutters into silence when the interviewer shows his knowledge of the party's secret agenda.

So much for George, you think; but you would be wrong. His campaign rolls on as if nothing had happened; the interview - conducted by a fruitily camera-hogging Robin Bailey - is presented as a slimy trick to discredit an honourable man. And when the Tories romp home again, you are left to sympathise with the tearful team who have given their all for the vanquished leader.

George is not one of Hare's boy scout heroes. He has faults of which his supporters are only too aware. He has no grasp of economics. His natural eloquence deserts him when he faces an audience. He has barricaded himself inside a kitchen cabinet of gurus and image-builders. The point about George - cast for maximum impact in John Thaw's mercurial, larger-than-life performance - is not that he is perfect, and not even that his policies are right: but that he has sacrificed himself to make the party electable. What the play celebrates are the virtues of loyalty and team spirit.

This was not much of a surprise for an audience that had already witnessed the revivals of the first two plays in Hare's institutional trilogy: Racing Demon and Murmuring Judges. This marathon is the greatest tribute the National Theatre has ever paid to a living author. At a blow, it silences the complaint over the decline of public drama and epic staging. It restores the vanished art of ensemble acting, with a company of fine all- rounders (Michael Bryant, Richard Pasco, Oliver Ford Davies, Barbara Leigh-Hunt) undergoing repeated transformation. And the design-direction partnership of Bob Crowley and Richard Eyre creates a coherent vision of England. From cathedrals to ethnic ghettos, from a fairy- tale Royal Opera House to an all too solid jail, the action unfolds with elegance and biting clarity on a stage that aspires to its ancient role as a platform for national debate. Which brings us back with a bump to the question of team spirit.

As a young writer, Hare had no time for research; all any writer needed, he used to assert, was imagination. In the late 1980s he reversed this and started asking questions before delivering judgements. The first fruit of his conversion, the Church of England play Racing Demon, uncovered a vein of emotional generosity that was quite new in his work, and was rightly acknowledged as a masterpiece. Perhaps he was not aiming at the same effect in the rest of the trilogy; certainly he has not achieved it. But where team spirit is concerned, the three plays are as one.

Throughout, Hare's sympathies go to beleaguered groups at society's sharp end. Racing Demon focuses on a parish team fighting a losing battle in the urban wasteland; and Hare's affectionate understanding for this obvious target remains wonderful, especially as he also avoids easy swipes at the ecclesiastical top brass. In Murmuring Judges, the team re-emerge as the hard-pressed staff of a police charge room (irresistibly led by Mark Strong as the half-bent copper), while the legal establishment and the Home Office get it in the neck. Finally, in Absence of War the outside world has all but disappeared, leaving George and his followers in unchallenged control of the audience's attention. 'It can do nothing but good,' Hare says, 'to go out and find out about other people's lives.' Yes; unless you become the captive of their loyalties and their need to win. For Hare as for his hero, the campaign trail leads to a dead end.

A family tree, included in the programme for August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, details six generations of the Charleses from their century as Southern slaves to their scattered lives in the 1930s. No one play could tell their full story, but its essence is contained in the centrepiece of Poppy Mitchell's set: an ancient upright piano carved with the figures and events of the family's history. Once the property of their white master, Scudder (who acquired it in exchange for one-and-a-half blacks), it now sits in the Pittsburgh home of Berniece and her uncle Doaker who have put the South behind them. Not so Berniece's brother, Boy Willie, who arrives with a truckload of watermelons and a determination to sell the piano and buy Scudder's land.

What follows is a family quarrel that stretches out to cover an amazing range of black experience. It is the piano that enables Wilson to achieve this. Never have so many meanings been concentrated into one stage property. To Bernice it is a sacred inheritance, both a record of the past and an emblem of slavery; to her brother, a means of levelling with the white man; to another uncle, it spells the years he has wasted in bars, playing for whisky; to Berniece's preacher boyfriend it is an instrument of the Lord. And as the stories of racial slayings and revenge murder surface, it becomes charged with superstitious power, bringing the feuding siblings together in exorcising Scudder's ghost.

The characters stand for varieties of typical experience; they are also fully rounded individuals - dislikeable at one moment, deeply sympathetic at the next. Again and again in Paulette Randall's production you recoil from some initially unbelievable action and then acknowledge its truth; most of all in the case of Lennie James's Boy Willie, a loud-mouthed egoist, cheerfully exploiting everyone for his own purposes, but also shouldering a weight of racial destiny that the others have abandoned and earning the love of the family's only child. This the fourth play of Wilson's Afro-American cycle to reach London: I think it is the best.

Hare: Olivier (071-928 2252). 'Piano Lesson': Tricycle (071- 328 1000). See the new theatre guide, Sunday Review, page 106.

(Photographs omitted)