I went to see Gethsemane by David Hare at the National Theatre last night. Political drama is always hard to get right, and even harder to keep politicos content. Even so, I was particularly disappointed.
The basic plot (spoilers) revolves around the teenage daughter of the Home Secretary being gang raped by a group of men at a party, one of which turns out to be a high profile political sketch writer for a major national newspaper. Alienated from her mother the girl acts up, leading to the threat of expulsion from her prestigious public school. Fearing a scandal, the Labour party machine moves in, utilising a rather unethical fundraiser to essentially bribe the school into suppressing the incident. But this bribe backfires and the story gets into the press anyway. Meanwhile the teenage daughter goes into hiding with her former comprehensive school’s music teacher – who also happens to be an employee of the fundraiser (as well as a former civil servant in the Home Office).
So much for that; the plot is largely immaterial really. Rather, the play is a meditation on the state of politics today. “Gethsemane” is a reference to Jesus’ Agony in the Garden, his momentary loss of faith just before being captured by the Romans and, eventually, crucified (you can understand the bloke’s reluctance). In modern parlance this is known as “feel the fear but do it anyway.” The school teacher in the play, played by Nicola Walker, keeps referring to her decision to quit teaching being her “Gethsemane” – as the play makes plain at the end however, she didn’t really have one: she quit, Jesus didn’t. By contrast, the character who does have a Gethsemane is Tamsin Greig’s Home Secretary.
This is all very clever and literary, but is it really that revealing? The problem with this play is that it is neither allegorical or satirical, but instead wades about in a stodgy middle ground. Stanley Townsend’s engaging and flamboyant fundraiser isn’t Lord Levy, just a character with enough incidental characteristics to make it obvious who he is based on. The result, though entertaining, perhaps lingers too closely near an anti-semitic caricature – this is Levy-as-Fagin. Anthony Calf’s Prime Minister isn’t Tony Blair either, but again has many of the same superficial characteristics. This isn’t an attempt to understand either men, merely an opportunity to traduce both of them. All good fun but… so what?
The problem with having both these two characters so obviously sourced from reality is that the brain inevitably then starts making links with the other, more allegorical characters. The Home Secretary isn’t really Jacqui Smith, but with her corrupt husband she is plainly modeled in part on Tessa Jowell. Adam James’s sketch writer (from the newspaper which has a proprietor locked up for tax evasion) and former medieval historian (the PM at one point echoes Charles Clarke’s infamous contempt for medievalists) is remarkably similar to Quentin Letts; does Letts have a sleazy child rape past we don’t know about (to avoid being sued, I should add: I sincerely doubt it)? And then there is the daughter; clearly echoing Kathryn Blair.
The problem with all this real life intruding into something that Hare describes as “pure fiction” is that it becomes impossible to pretend that this play is a comment in individuals rather than a system. And that point is reinforced by the fact that despite its premiere taking place in 2008, it only deals with Blair-era politics. There is an attempt to wash over this when one of the characters asks “what happens when the money runs out?” but the clear inference is that those bastards were bad and it should all be different now.
The closest the play comes to any sort of insight is the implication that the ex-teacher – who we are to understand is an Everywoman – is essentially as culpable for What Has Gone Wrong as everyone else. She quit. If we don’t keep fighting, of course these bastards will end up in power. That is a perfectly legitimate point to make, but it isn’t really dwelt upon. The audience – for it is us who are the target of this message – is ultimately let off the hook.
For me, the real final denouement of the play is not this, but looking at the back page of the programme. This is where you find the real twist, because here you discover that this play about how nasty corporate interest infects and corrodes politics, is supported (presumably tax free) by J.P. Morgan. You literally could not make this up. We are told that “at J.P. Morgan we believe that the arts have the power to do many things: Inspire; Challenge; Stimulate; Question; Entertain; and Enlighten.” As part of the National Theatre’s “New Views” programme in association with J.P. Morgan, “students will undertake a challenge to change one thing in the world that gives them a sense of injustice. Their work will explore the power of critical, creative and polemical writing to promote change and their endeavours will culminate in a ‘Day of Protest’ to be held at the NT in December 2008.”
Did that Day of Protest pass you by? It did me. Notably, all reference to it has been expunged from the National Theatre’s website. Somehow I doubt it resulted in many windows getting smashed. Ultimately then, this play is as much a creature of the corporate machine as the system it is denouncing. I doubt David Hare had a “Gethsemane” himself.
I wanted insight and all I got was cynicism. If this is theatre doing its best to hold politics to account, it is failing abysmally.
UPDATE: Had an interesting chat with the gf and her mother this evening. She didn’t get the Everywoman thing at all (although she admitted I had a point), so either I’m wrong and the play didn’t have a discernable point at all, or I’m right and the message was too sotto voce.