Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Absence of War – Liverpool Playhouse – 24/03/2015

"We need not waste time on the design of the envelope, so long as we trust the document inside"

Politicians thrive on conflict, and there’s nothing like a threat to national security to get them mounting their high horses but, in the absence of war, what is there to galvanise them to a cause and show their mettle?

Recent controversy over the relative willingness of various political leaders to take part in televised debate has once again made me despair that the people I want running the country are the ones with sound policies and the ability to carry them through, not those who polish up best and make good television personalities. I frankly couldn’t care less if an MP or a Prime Minister looks smart and has slick answers for Jeremy Paxman, and I suspect that George Jones would agree with me.

George who? I hear you ask...

David Hare’s play is over 22 years old, but sadly the issues it raises seem almost more relevant today than when it first appeared shortly after the failure of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party to win the 1992 election. Hare was keen at the time to state that his play was not a portrait of that election, albeit based on research he did during the campaign. It is nonetheless very hard not to see it that way in retrospect.

Moreover today’s audience would be forgiven for seeing more than a few parallels between George Jones and certain other people who are struggling with their public image as they try to focus on the politics rather than the packaging.

George Jones is the leader of the opposition in David Hare’s Labour party, and he is up against Charles Kendrick, Prime Minister, who calls an election with no notice, throwing Jones’s campaign office into a panic. “You lot, you’re the maids” he says to his team “And as in Moliere you’re all of a tizz in order that I may be calm”. The role of the theatre loving party leader was played in its original incarnation by John Thaw, who famously made his professional debut on the boards of the Liverpool Playhouse. Reece Dinsdale, who played Thaw’s on-screen son in Home to Roost, now recreates the part for this touring revival.

I recall seeing a somewhat younger Mr Dinsdale 32 years ago in a play with Peter Ustinov, and have been interested to see his face appear fairly regularly in various guises over the years. He was a jolly good sparkling wine back then. Nowadays he’s an altogether more full bodied red, and shows himself as a fine character actor here. George Jones’s heart is in the right place and he believes passionately in his party’s policies. Problem is that, by the time he has been through the PR polishing process in which every member of the team is trained in what to say and how to say it, he seems unable to remember what those policies are and ends up saying almost nothing.

There is a splendid scene in which he is interviewed by veteran broadcaster Linus Frank on his election special and crumbles horribly before our eyes. Linus Frank is played with wonderful gravitas by Don Galloway, who also fascinatingly doubles as Charles Kendrick, the statesmanlike but overbearing Prime Minister.

There is an excellent ensemble cast under the breakneck direction of Jeremy Herrin, and of particular note are very strong performances from Cyril Nri as political advisor Oliver Dix, Charlotte Lucas as Lindsay Fontaine, the PR adviser, Maggie McCarthy, George’s diary secretary Gwenda and James Harkness, his minder Andrew.

As we’d expect from Headlong, who have co-produced this production with Sheffield Theatres Crucible and Rose Theatre Kingston, there is very slick use of physical staging, light and sound. Translucent rectilinear screens and projections rise and fall in Mike Britton’s set and there’s a proliferation of 1990’s style TV monitors that provide alternative views of the action as would be seen by a TV audience. Tom Gibbons’ sound design incorporates some rousing music, including that specified in the text for the Cenotaph ceremonies, but also some rather chilling allusions to Götterdämmerung.

David Hare’s writing shows once more its enduring currency and genius and this is a revival that is as finely crafted as it is timely.
In the current tour The Absence of War has already played in Sheffield, Norwich, Watford, Bristol, and Cheltenham. It runs at Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 28th March, after which it will continue as follows:
Citizen’s Theatre Glasgow - Tue 31 March – Sat 4 April 
Oxford Playhouse - Wed 8 – Sat 11 April 
Rose Theatre, Kingston - Tue 14 – Sat 25 April 
Cambridge Arts Theatre - Tue 28 April – Sat 2 May 
Theatre Royal Bath - Tue 5th – Sat 9th May
Don Gallagher and Reece Dinsdale - Photo (c) Mark Douet

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