On 14 April 2010, three weeks before the general election, David Hare was on stage for a Platform talk at the Lyttelton Theatre and spoke of a frustrating failure. His play The Absence of War, premiered in the Olivier in 1993, had fictionalized Labour’s doomed 1992 election campaign, which ended with John Major still in Number Ten, and was followed by Neil Kinnock’s resignation as party leader, and, under John Smith and Tony Blair, the birth of New Labour. Hare told his Platform audience that he had been unable to convince any producing theatre to revive The Absence of War for the 2010 poll: “It is about the roots of New Labour and, now that we assume New Labour is coming to an end in three weeks’ time, it would be fantastic to show that play.”
In 2015, with Labour again intent on ousting a Tory Prime Minister, Hare’s wish has belatedly come true: The Absence of War opens at the Crucible, Sheffield, on 6 February, and will then tour, finishing in Bath two days after the election.
This co-production between Headlong, Sheffield Theatres and the Rose, Kingston, is directed by Headlong’s artistic director, Jeremy Herrin, who says that when he told Hare he wanted to mount this pre-election tour, the dramatist was “overjoyed. It was wonderful to see such an esteemed playwright excited about a project in quite a giddy way.”
Herrin did not seeThe Absence of War when it concluded Hare’s state-of-the-nation trilogy, after Racing Demon (Cottesloe, 1990) and Murmuring Judges (Olivier, 1991) had explored, respectively, the Anglican church and the criminal justice system – all three staged by then NT Director Richard Eyre.
Hare and Eyre were both friends with Kinnock, who had enjoyed Racing Demon and Murmuring Judges, and knew that both dramas had emerged from Hare’s interviews with clergy, solicitors, barristers, police and prison officers. So, when the playwright sought privileged access to Labour’s 1992 campaign, Kinnock said yes, on the understanding, as Hare put it, “[that] I wasn’t literally going to put people on the stage.”
Hare attended Labour rallies and press conferences, and private meetings involving Kinnock and, amongst others, Roy Hattersley (Shadow Home Secretary), Gerald Kaufman (Shadow Foreign Secretary), and strategists Philip Gould and Patricia Hewitt. Hattersley said Labour stood on the brink of an historic victory, but the Tories returned to power, albeit with a substantially reduced majority.
In The Absence of War, Hare presents Labour leader George Jones, who, although a bachelor from London, rather than a married Welshman, resembles Kinnock in age (early fifties), socialist values and garrulous wit; both men adore theatre. Jones and his team – including Shadow Chancellor, Deputy Leader, chief-of-staff and an advertising executive, Lindsay Fontaine, hired to re-brand the party – face a snap election called by Tory PM Charles Kendrick.
Just as Kinnock’s closest advisers pressured him to forego what author and former Labour press officer Francis Beckett has called “the simple, direct, passionate language that won hearts”, apparently fearful that he might “bungle if let out without a leash”, so Jones’ advisers believe they can eliminate electoral risk by ensuring that “George… learns his lines and he sticks to them.” Their promising campaign falters after a TV interviewer ambushes Jones with leaked information about his party’s manifesto. The Tories go on to win.
With John Thaw as Jones, The Absence of War was set to open in October 1993, in repertoire with Racing Demon and Murmuring Judges (billed as The David Hare Trilogy), but that September its rehearsals were overshadowed by publicity surrounding Hare’s research notebooks, which he distilled into Asking Around: Background to The David Hare Trilogy, to be published just after the Trilogy press day.
An Evening Standard story headlined “Lefties v Luvvies” noted that Hare’s access to Labour meetings had “seemed like a wonderful collaboration of art and politics. But now it has all gone sour.” Gould and Hewitt refused “to sign clearance papers allowing their discussions” to appear in Asking Around, enabling the Daily Mail to run with “Kinnock aides accuse author of betrayal.”
Reviewing a preview performance, Hattersley claimed The Absence… depicted “the Kinnock of the gossip columns, not the Kinnock of real life”. In a review for this newspaper, Kaufman described certain scenes as “so accurate as to be positively gruesome”; Fontaine (played by Clare Higgins) was “strongly reminiscent” of Hewitt.
Eyre thought drama critics’ generally “mealy-mouthed” response to Hare’s writing in The Absence of War was “a classic journalistic confusion between documentary and art, between simile and metaphor”, but Hare later admitted: “There could be no worse way of convincing people something is not documentary than to simultaneously publish a documentary book.”
The Absence of War did well at the Olivier (100 performances to 82% attendance), where Kinnock found it successful theatrically, but painful to watch: “It shows me as an arsehole.”
It would be a decade – spanning two resounding election victories for New Labour – before Jonathan Church (who revived Racing Demon in Salisbury in 1997), co-directed the entire Trilogy (with Rachel Kavanaugh), as artistic director of Birmingham Rep. These productions ran in repertoire, including, as at the National, 12-hour “Trilogy Days” – programming which led Hare to dub Church “suicidally courageous”.
Church had missedThe Absence of War at the NT, and in Hare’s 90-minute TV adaptation, directed by Eyre for BBC2 in 1995, with Thaw, Higgins and other original cast members. In 2003, with Tony Blair as PM, Church found the play “phenomenally prophetic” about New Labour: “The difference between the Conservative and Labour stance narrowing, because it was all about getting elected.”
The Birmingham company, including Malcolm Storry as Jones, used Asking Around as their research “bible” in rehearsal, but on stage, says Church, “we weren’t trying to emphasize the [1990s] period. If you didn’t know the background, you could easily have thought the play was set in 2003.”
This revival led The Guardian’s Michael Billington to argue that critics had misjudged The Absence of War in 1993 “because it seemed so close to… Labour’s continual disaster at the polls; we all thought it was mere journalism”; in Birmingham it emerged “as an extraordinary play about the recurrent problem in any Labour government of… ideological purity versus electability.”
Now, Church cannot wait to see Herrin’s production. “It’s very clever programming. In 2003, Labour were powerful; they feel so toothless now.”
In 2008 – by when Hare had put senior Labour figures onto NT stages (John Prescott responding to railway disasters, in 2003’s The Permanent Way; Blair and Jack Straw preparing for the Iraq War, in 2004’s Stuff Happens) – the playwright collaborated with Herrin for the first time, on The Vertical Hour at the Royal Court. “After that production,” recalls Herrin, “David said ‘I’d like you to do more of my work.’ He gave me a little pile of his plays that he thought hadn’t quite got the attention they deserved. The Absence of War was one of them.’ Still freelance, Herrin directed Hare’s one-act South Downs (Chichester and London, 2013), and then, after succeeding Rupert Goold at Headlong last June, was finally in a position to revive The Absence of War “I knew that, after this really interesting period when our political culture has been changing, we could tour a play that directly addresses that issue [before the election]. Unfortunately, in 1993 that ghost in the room, about real [electoral] disappointment, obscured the play’s accuracy as political analysis.”
As Jones, Herrin has cast a Yorkshireman, Reece Dinsdale, who will play the Labour leader as Sheffield-born and bred, to create further distance from Thaw’s south Londoner for the NT. “We’re opening in Sheffield,” explains Herrin, “which is as good a place as any for Jones to come from: the nature of socialist politics is built into a city like Sheffield.”
Herrin’s production will look very different from the earlier stagings. For 17 speaking roles and various “extras” (MPs, police and press), Eyre had 26 actors; Church had 23; Herrin has 12. “I’m hoping that will show that David’s not a naturalistic writer,” he says. “With 12, the play’s epic nature is exposed. Don Gallagher as Kendrick and Linus Frank [the TV interviewer], is the only big double, and there’s a nice, Brechtian feel to that: they’re both aggressive figures of the English Establishment.”
As polling day nears, will The Absence’s Act One revelation that 70% of voters believe Labour “no longer stands for anything distinctive” prompt audience laughter at Miliband and Co.’s expense? Might A&E strains at a tour venue’s local hospital give an extra charge to the claim by Jones’ chief-of-staff that “health is the knife that’s going to detach voters from their primary loyalties”? Herrin expects such responses to “ebb and flow. I’m sure real-life [campaign] events will be reflected directly in a comic car-crash of a similarity with a line in the play.” The Shadow Cabinet, meanwhile, must hope that, come 8 May, Miliband’s status does not echo Hare’s own definition of The Absence of War, as a play about a Labour leader “coming to the painful realization that he was unelectable.”
Daniel Rosenthal is an author, editor, journalist and lecturer. His book The National Theatre Story, winner of the 2014 STR Theatre Book Prize, is available from Oberon Books at oberonbooks.com/the-national
A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Independent on 2 February 2015: http://ind.pn/1BYLjQd