Why won’t theatre tackle right-wing politics?

Alexander Larman

Alexander Larman says that society's unwillingness to depict the Conservative government on stage is a missed opportunity

23 October 2018 17:23

In May this year, the Observer conducted a joint interview with the Grand Poohbah of British political theatre, David Hare, and his astonishingly prolific disciple James Graham. The politics discussed were those almost exclusively of the Labour party, save a smart/silly remark of Graham’s: ‘I’m fascinated by the idea that Margaret Thatcher was a fictional character invented by Saatchi & Saatchi – the voice, the outfit – even the philosophy.’ It is easier to mock a fiction than the reality.

Yet the most revealing statement was Hare bemoaning ‘a strongly philistine tradition in politics’ in that MPs are traditionally not theatregoers. The ones he excludes were Kinnock, Blair and – ‘in a way that was incomprehensible to me’ – George Osborne. In those eight words, Hare, a thoughtful and intelligent man, casually expressed his own bigotry. Never mind that Osborne has an appreciation of high and low culture that would put many newspaper arts editors to shame – or, today, his fellow newspaper editors – he is a Tory, and Tories have no right to appreciate the theatre, because they are fundamentally wicked, and wicked people do not deserve the works of David Hare.

As arguments go, it is banal, simplistic and insulting. Yet it can still be made, whether because there is a genuine right-wing tradition of philistinism towards the theatre, or because its practitioners have an in-built bias towards anyone from a Conservative background. While it should be possible to write engagingly about right-wing issues and figures from a neutral, even hostile, perspective, contemporary playwrights and artistic directors have largely eschewed them. ‘Political’ theatre today tends to mean concentrating on either Brexit or the current state of the Labour party, to the exclusion of other, more compelling stories.

Both Hare and Graham’s most recent plays deal with divisions within Labour. Graham’s, the more acclaimed of the two, was entitled Labour of Love (2017) and looked at the 25-year long relationship between the modernising Blairite MP David Lyons and his more traditionally socialist constituency agent Jean Whittaker. Hare’s play, I’m Not Running (2018), contrasts the decent, principled Labour MP Pauline Gibson with her former lover Jack Gould, a career politician whose expected assumption of the party’s leadership is threatened by a surge of popular support for Pauline, who is, predictably enough, a leading advocate of the NHS. It was greeted with more lukewarm reviews than the playwright might have expected. Michael Billington mused in the Guardian that ‘it is a less than perfect dramatic structure’, and Lloyd Evans, admittedly no natural admirer of Hare, demanded in The Spectator that ‘real women should boycott, if not picket, this slanderous attack upon their sex.’

‘I’m Not Running’ (David Hare, 2018)

Yet both playwrights would say that the first night critics’ reviews are less important than the wider impact of their plays. This has proved true of much of Hare’s work, and of Graham’s first big hit, This House (2012), a closely researched and highly dramatic account of the seismic political upheavals between 1974 – 79. One of Graham’s great achievements throughout the play is his scrupulous even-handedness towards both political parties. The dramatic climax comes when the Conservative deputy chief whip, Jack Weatherill, offers to abstain from casting his vote in a ballot of no confidence in the (Labour) government. Weatherill, who knew that his suggestion would cost him his job were it to be carried out, acted out of principle knowing that a Labour MP, whose vote would have saved the government, was very ill and unable to attend the Commons. Thus, his actions arose from a sense of decency and fair play, even if his Labour opposite number, Walter Harrison, felt unable to accept his offer. Graham, thankfully, did not give into the temptation of underlining the moment with the astonished incredulity – ‘but he was a Tory!’ – that a more partisan writer might have embraced; Weatherill is depicted in the play as simply a man of integrity.

Such presentations of Conservatives, fictional or real, are rare upon the contemporary London stage. Well-known post-war Prime Ministers appeared in various degrees of caricature in Peter Morgan’s forerunner of The Crown (2016), the award-winning The Audience (2013), but it is hard to imagine a major commission at a subsidised theatre, or a commercial one, revolving entirely around a right-wing subject.

The last major ‘conservative’ play that received wide exposure, acclaimed revivals and box office success was Tom Stoppard’s 1982 drama The Real Thing, which not only lauds the virtues of Englishness – cricket, good writing, love – but presents as its antagonist a snivelling failure of a would-be playwright, Brodie. As Stoppard’s alter ego Henry says of his terrible writing, ‘it’s balls…when he gets into his stride, or rather his lurch, announcing every stale revelation of the newly enlightened, like stout Cortez coming upon the Pacific – war is profit, politicians are puppets, Parliament is a farce … you can’t fool Brodie!’ Given the close similarities between his doleful literary output and many members of Momentum – especially those who contributed to the recent Poems for Jeremy Corbyn (2016) – he would be portrayed differently in a contemporary version of the play if it wished not to alienate large sections of its audience.

In his memoir of his time as Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Balancing Acts (2017), the ever-thoughtful Nicholas Hytner mused on why his regime there had seen virtually nothing in the form of conservative drama staged there.  He wrote ‘I should have rejected the attempt to corral the creative arts into categories that are no longer adequate even as an indication of political belief…instead, I said I’d be delighted to produce a right-wing play if someone would write a good one.’ The results were swift, and predictable (‘boring plays poured in, all of them monomaniacal about making some point or other’), but Hytner rejected ‘a hundred plays that worshipped at the altar of Margaret Thatcher’ for the same reasons that he turned down ‘the hagiography of Nelson Mandela’; namely, that ‘as drama they were dead.’

‘The Audience’ (Peter Morgan, 2013)

Some of his contemporaries have a less open-minded approach. I recently interviewed an impeccably liberal-minded artistic director of one of the major subsided theatres and asked them whether they would ever stage a play that did not chime with their own politics; after some platitudes about ‘wanting to stage as broad a range of work as possible’, they changed tack and announced matter-of-factly that ‘we’d probably struggle to find a creative team who would be interested in being part of a play that they found objectionable.’ Challenging, aggressively violent work by the likes of Sarah Kane and Martin McDonagh will continue to find both an audience and a cast and directors, but a play revolving around a controversial, or simply unfashionable, political subject faces a harder time.

Such was the fate of the acclaimed dramatist Chris Hannan’s most recent play, What Shadows, which was first staged in Birmingham in 2016 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Despite well-received performances at the Birmingham Rep and the Edinburgh Lyceum, and a short run at London’s fringe Park theatre, it never attracted the media attention or momentum to lead to a West End transfer, despite the mighty presence of Ian McDiarmid as Powell and the Daily Telegraph describing it as ‘the most provocative theatrical act of the decade’.

According to Hannan, who began writing the play in what he calls ‘a pre-Brexit world…a Guardian reader’s Eden’, his aim was never to celebrate or demonise Powell, but instead to examine heightened questions of English identity. As he says, ‘my job as a playwright was to create an Enoch Powell that the audience could engage with, intellectually and emotionally. As a character he is both theatrical and self-dramatizing and that makes him larger than life.  So whether the audience like him or not, he can involve them.’

Hannan is not himself a man of the Right – ‘his views are not my views’ – but his conception of Powell was prescient. He argues that ‘he represents a large body of English working-and-middle-class opinion and emotion, so why demonize him? Why present him as extremist?  Intellectually what he’s saying is, “England has to know itself.” As individuals and as a country we have to know ourselves. I don’t agree with much of what he says, but I passionately agree with that, and it has become achingly clear that we have no idea who we are or what as a people we have in common.’ One difficulty that Hannan faced was that Powell’s foil, a black academic named Rose Cruickshank, who was 10-years-old at the time of the Rivers of Blood speech, was not presented as a paragon but as a complex, multi-faceted human being. As he notes, ‘People in the industry were unhappy because the black character was flawed. People might think the message is she’s no better than Powell.’

Although the play was welcomed by those who saw it – ‘audiences that were culturally and politically hugely divergent watched the play in pin-drop silence’ – Hannan is all too aware that dealing with a hugely controversial figure of the Right has an inherent problem, namely that ‘the play I set out to write had no interest in confirming anyone’s bias, whether right or left, whether black, white or brown… this was never a play that was going to get a standing ovation because on the whole audiences like to have their biases confirmed.’ A nuanced, intellectually adept examination of a controversial figure, then, is likely to struggle in an arena that wants certainty and liberal tummy-tickling, however ersatz its message might be.    

‘What Shadows’ (Chris Hannan, 2016)

It is an old canard that, if one wants successful conservative theatre, one should stick to the countless revivals of musicals that are reliable money-spinners for commercial producers. Yet this, too, has changed dramatically. Whereas once audiences would have been content with tales of true love and happy endings, the most talked-about recent productions – from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (2015) to the newly gender-flipped Follies (Stephen Sondheim, 1971) – are experimental in both form and delivery, pushing boundaries and upending expectations. Which is thrilling for the sell-out audiences enjoying them, but makes a mockery of the cliché of the blue-rinse brigade enjoying yet another starry revival of The Sound of Music (Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, 1959).

If one wishes for purely Conservative drama, there are almost too many stories that can be told, whether as high drama, absurd farce or both; it is a particular shame that contemporary playwrights and directors have shied away from these tales. The acclaimed recent adaptations of Robert Harris’ novels of Roman intrigue, Imperium, could, with only minor alterations, emerge as accounts of an ambitious blonde-haired former foreign secretary; little wonder that he was seen watching it with his son at the height of one of his recent public scandals. The Zelig-like transformation of George Osborne from ‘Boy George’ to Iron Chancellor to defenestrated backbencher to vengeful Evening Standard editor would make a similarly brilliant drama – although perhaps no playwright would ever dare write a scene as blunt as when Osborne, offering schadenfreude-laden commentary on Theresa May’s loss of a majority at the snap election of 2017, sneered ‘It looks like running through a field of wheat is no longer the worst thing she’s ever done.’

Yet the greatest loss to contemporary drama is a curious reluctance for a courageous playwright to take Hytner’s criticisms on board and write a towering role for a brilliant and fearless actress to essay the most controversial figure on the post-war British Right: a Tamburlaine (Christopher Marlowe, 1587) or Mother Courage (Bertolt Brecht, 1941) for our times. Perhaps it is an unfortunate truth that a woman whose surname is snapped out as an expletive by her many detractors simply doesn’t have a living dramatist who is equal to the considerable challenge; one thinks of Marlowe, Shakespeare or Ibsen, rather than a Hare, Graham (who, admittedly, tackled her youth in his early play Little Madam) or even Stoppard.

Yet perhaps Graham’s point about the Iron Lady being her own dramatic creation, complete with costume, make-up and carefully scripted dialogue, is an accurate one. Just as Wilde could boast ‘I have put my talent into my art, and my genius into my life’, so Margaret Thatcher – a woman who took little interest in the theatre – might convince us that she, and we, don’t need the sparkling dialogue, knife-edge suspense and staggeringly bold twists of the stage. Contemporary politics, in its increasingly unhinged splendour, offers it all every day. And, of course, it’s free to all. From Prime Ministers to groundlings, whatever your political persuasion, we can all wallow in every spellbinding moment of the greatest show in town.