Writer: Simon Woods
Director: Simon Godwin
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Most of us may feel that we have had enough of politics in our lives right now, but actor turned playwright Simon Woods seems to think otherwise. His play is a forensic examination of the murky territory where the public and private lives of a politician and his wife intersect. It is quite something for a debut play to be premiered at this hallowed venue, taken on by in-form director Simon Godwin and blessed with the dream casting of Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings, but this is quite some play.
Robin Hesketh (Jennings) is a minister in the Margaret Thatcher Government of 1988. Every weekend, he negotiates the Hanger Lane gyratory and the Oxford by-pass to reach his constituency home in the Cotswolds and be greeted by his bored, heavy drinking wife Diana (Duncan). Hildegard Bechtler’s design for the Hesketh living space is expansive, stretching to the entire width of the Lyttelton stage, and elegant, but it is entirely soulless, not personalised in any way, and we know before a word is spoken that there is emptiness in the lives of the occupants.
Acted out over just under 90 minutes in real time, the play begins as a battle of wills in which both combatants denounce each other with excoriating wit, sharpened over many years of marriage. Left-leaning Diana despises the old school tie brigade represented by her husband, while Robin scoffs at Diana’s favoured artsy set, citing theatregoers and readers of Ian “McKellen” novels in particular.. Woods’ style has the feel of Oscar Wilde, who delved into similar political territory in The Ideal Husband. Under Godwin’s unobtrusive direction, the fun flows freely, but we are always aware of more serious themes lying beneath the surface.
The pompous, upstanding, possibly promiscuous Tory politician and his obedient wife could easily have been seen as stereotypes, but Woods resists temptations for caricature, giving Duncan and Jennings every opportunity (which both seize with relish) to make the characters three-dimensional. We sense from the beginning that something more than duty binds the pair together and the gradual discovery of what that factor is becomes one of the play’s great pleasures.
Woods is even-handed in political debates, allowing both sides of each argument to be heard. A recurring theme is spurred by Diana’s objections to Robin’s advocacy of the infamous Section 28, which prohibited the teaching of LGBT+ lifestyles in schools. He claims to be fearful that white heterosexual men could become extinct within 20 years, but we see him as conforming to the role for which he was born by upholding the traditional values of his times and not as a monster. That said, the play is not just a history lesson, making us aware that the Section 28 arguments have re-emerged in 2019 and that elitist politicians have never gone away.
There are times when Hansard feels like an enjoyable ride without a clear destination, but, when we arrive at the play’s dénouement, it hits with the force of a sledgehammer. Showing consummate skill, Duncan and Jennings move from splitting sides to breaking hearts at the blink of an eyelid. Woods has set the bar high for his second play.
Runs until 25 November 2019 | Image: Catherine Ashmore