A life in politics, with new trends
and old truths, is tackled in David Hare’s latest work. Hare imagines the
success of a fictitious independent campaigner for the NHS, a single-issue
candidate with a populist touch, who gains such momentum she just might run for
leader of the Labour Party. This will-she-won’t-she drama proves surprisingly
Focusing on a heroine means Hare tackles current developments in feminism, a bold move that he carries off well. The character of Pauline Gibson condenses many problems women face with insight and humour, although she’s written a little too naïve – the play spans 20 years and there isn’t enough personal development. But it’s a star role for Siân Brooke who, while shouting a tad excessively, manages to make a demanding role look easy work and proves a captivating presence with the charisma the character calls for.
Considering Gibson as a new kind of
politician gives the play topical cachet. The debate is about party machinery,
admittedly an easy target, and Hare gets good laughs with plenty of insight. A
press officer, whose character is given depth by Joshua McGuire, makes for one
successful foil. Gibson’s college boyfriend and then leadership rival is the
show’s second lead: Alex Hassell’s Blairite creation is delicious fun, just the
right side of caricature. The romance between Brooke and Hassell’s characters
wastes time. It’s too easy to spot where director Neil Armfield has tried to
inject pace, and the arguments that ensue are contrived.
Either Gibson is your worst nightmare or she’s the politician we need rather than the one we deserve. Either way, the character is too simplistic for I’m Not Running to be truly brilliant. The play is a traditional affair; inexplicably Hare’s craftsmanship and the very idea of a national debate at the National Theatre turns some off. But perhaps what dates Hare most is his wry, sardonic tone. This is playwright as sage, a role Hare has earned and that I am happy to subscribe to. The distance in his authorial voice gives a calmer approach than much current political discussion and makes him, refreshingly, open and questioning. And Hare has the experience to make the topic work theatrically. Clearly, the subject matter is important. This play is about the most powerful political ingredient – hope. And examining how realistic we are about our politicians is essential. But the real skill here is to make such ideas exciting. Will Gibson renege on a statement not to run? Will a politician actually end up telling the truth? Despite expectations, Hare makes the question gripping.
Until 31 January 2019
Photo by Mark Douet.
Reprising his role as Hal, after last year’s turn in Henry IV Parts I & II, Alex Hassell ascends to the throne in a Christmas treat for Londoners from the RSC. Gregory Doran directs, offering a fulsome and classy production. Hassell is a suitably thorough performer. Strongest when showing the nervousness of a new monarch dwelling on the morality of war, his transformation into a convincing martial leader is a carefully paced achievement.
Doran’s populous show looks and sounds great. There’s an exhibition about the gorgeous lighting, designed by Tim Mitchell, in the Barbican’s foyer space. Period instruments and a beautifully sung Te Deum (performed by Helena Raeburn) are highlights. Most memorable is an avuncular performance from Oliver Ford Davies as the chorus. Placed to the fore, his humorous calls to our imagination give the show a surprising intimacy and his modesty makes a pleasant foil to the production’s grandeur.
This is a long Henry V. Scenes of light relief are given plenty of time: one section of Act 3 Scene 2, often discarded, has not just an Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman but also a Welshman thrown together for fun (Joshua Richards’ Fluellen is satisfying throughout the show). And Doran wants to address the peace as much as the war – perhaps a little more than Shakespeare can be bothered with. The romance between Henry and Kate is rather dragged out (despite Jennifer Kirby’s charming Katherine) and Jane Lapotaire’s Queen Isobel takes centre stage for a speech on the state of France that is, again, sometimes skipped. Even though you might be left agreeing with productions that condense the action, this luxury edition of the show drips quality.
Until 19 December 2015. The King and Country four play cycle of productions, including Richard II, will be performed in January 2016.
Photo by Keith Pattison
Gregory Doran’s revival of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman fully justifies the director’s claim that this is the greatest American play of the 20th century. Although rooted in post-war US society, Miller’s family tragedy and critique of capitalism transcends time and place. Perhaps recent economic woes make this powerful play freshly pertinent: the loss of job security for long-serving salesman Willy Loman rings alarm bells for us all. And perhaps, too – aided by our increased awareness of dementia – Willy’s tragic decline has added poignancy. Just as likely, the play is simply a masterpiece.
Antony Sher is confident and controlled in the lead role. Clearly passionate about the part, Sher projects an intensity that enfolds you. It’s an exceptionally subtle and intelligent delivery: for all Willy’s faults, we see why his family loves him, he isn’t made an underdog and there are no excuses for his behaviour – but he still retains our sympathy. Willy’s confidence seesaws constantly, moments of self-doubt are carefully hinted at. When Willy is presented with the gas pipe he plans to kill himself with, Sher’s whole body becomes frozen. It’s a tremendous theatrical moment.
Backed by Harriet Walter as Willy’s wife, with Alex Hassell and Sam Marks as his sons, the family struggles with the delusions of success and excess of optimism that construct their dreams. This is an unbeatable quartet of performances. The fight to see facts instead of fantasy is a relentless focus. Willy’s memories, possibly false, presented as the consequence of his age and misfortune, slide into the action dynamically. The downward spiral of the whole family in the second half is gut-wrenching and miraculously suspense-filled. We can all predict what’s coming but Doran makes it riveting, obeying the play’s demand that “attention must be paid”.
Until 18 July 2015
Photo by Ellie Kurttz