David Lister: Who cares about yesterday's men?

Journalists never fare very well with David Hare. The playwright once wrote that "The Independent is staffed by fools who know nothing about art". That was this paper consigned to the cultural dustbin. And in his latest play, the profession as a whole gets short shrift. The token journalist is, as our critic put it, a "slimeball" who sleeps with the home secretary's daughter, when she is only 16.

It's a bit disturbing, that. Hare, after all, is known to research his work avidly; and so much else in Gethsemane, his new play at the National Theatre, seems drawn very closely from real life. Hopefully, he just lets his imagination run riot when it comes to journalists. It's the politicians I'm more concerned about.

A cabinet minister's husband is facing a court appearance relating to his overseas investment portfolio. The home secretary's rebellious child is caught smoking dope. The Labour Party's chief fundraiser is a flashy former pop impresario. Yes. It's all depressingly familiar. Too familiar. Tessa Jowell, Jack Straw, Lord Levy... they're all there so thinly disguised that it's a wonder Hare didn't use their real names.

Many will think that this is what political theatre should be. I'm less sure. Nothing dates so much as recent political scandals. It's hard now to become fascinated again by the tribulations of the Blair years.

I wonder how often David Hare's Nineties play The Absence of War is revived. With its negative portrayal of a Neil Kinnock character – Hare had been allowed to observe Kinnock at close quarters during the Labour leader's final election campaign – it was controversial enough at the time, at least in theatre and Labour leadership circles. But would it mean much now? Will Tessa Jowell's marital problems or the problems of Labour Party political fundraising mean much in 10 or 20 years' time, let alone 100 years' time?

That has to be the test of great political theatre. Are the themes universal, and will it stand the test of time? One of the greatest political plays, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, is set in the Salem witch hunts of 17th-century New England. That in itself is an intense drama. But the play, as is well known, is an allegory of the McCarthy trials in post-war America. Yet, how much less of a great play it would have been, if it had focused on the names and personalities of members of McCarthy's committee?

There is searching political drama around now too. But its creators are not British. The Royal Court recently staged Now or Later, a new American play by Christopher Shinn in which the son of a president-elect put his father's success in jeopardy and provoked an Islamicist backlash by going to a fancy dress party dressed up as the Prophet Mohamed. Again, this explored themes that were wider than the issues of the moment, and this American playwright went where his British counterparts fear to tread – a drama that debates and questions Islamic fundamentalism.

David Hare remains among the most eminent of this country's political dramatists. He has consistently brought the stage closer to the political and social issues of the day than nearly any of his peers. But they are issues and personalities of their time. Unlike the great universal dramas, the great universal political dramas, they can all too rapidly become rather last season.

I still live in hope that, for added dramatic interest, Hare might one day come up with a devious school teacher, an idealistic politician, and a hard-working, happily married journalist.

Howay to Broadway

A few years back I was chatting to a slightly perturbed Stephen Daldry. The director told me that he was working on his first movie, which he had called The Dancer. But his paymasters, Working Title, wanted to call the film by the name of its protagonist, Billy Elliot. I agreed with Daldry that The Dancer was a much better title. We were both wrong.

This week the stage version of Billy Elliot, a huge success in London, opened on Broadway to rave reviews. Apparently audiences are finding the Geordie accents a challenge, though they seem to enjoy the miners swearing about Margaret Thatcher. Happily, the programme contains helpful "translations", such as: "Mebbies/ Mebbie Rhymes with Debbie's/ Debbie, means maybe. 'Mebbies you could run away.' "

Fair enough, as certainly is a brief explanation of saying to a girl "Howay woman man". But surely even a non-passport-holding New Yorker doesn't really need it spelt out that "cannut means can't".

Let's hear it for the chorus line


The Leonard Cohen gig that I attended in London this week was spectacularly good. It was an astonishing three-hour performance from a septuagenarian. As he put it: "Last time I was here was 14 years ago. I was just a kid of 60, full of dreams."

His musicians all seemed to be virtuosi, and the three female backing singers had the voices of angels. I'm still wondering if I dreamt one moment, which was the strangest I have ever seen at a gig. In the middle of the third number, two of the backing singers, sisters, suddenly did a synchronised somersault, then returned to their harmonies. No one said anything; no one applauded. The rest of the audience must have also wondered if their eyes had deceived them. The sisters never moved again the entire night.

At the end of the show Cohen introduced his band. When he got to the backing singers he introduced "the Webb sisters, beautiful singers and acrobats". So maybe it did happen. Or maybe I dreamt that bit too.

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