Writer: David Hare
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Reviewer: Clare Howdon
David Hare’s The Absence of War has been resurrected over two decades since its creation and marks the first collaboration between Headlong, Sheffield theatres and Rose Theatre, Kingston. It is also obviously no coincidence that it is touring merely months before one of the UK’s most unpredictable general elections in years.
The Absence of War, which scrutinises the political system, taking the Labour party as its subject, marks the third part of a Hare trilogy, following Racing Demons and Murmuring Judges. It is one of those very special, timeless plays that not only spoke to the population of 1992, but also feels particularly pertinent in 2015. The questions that The Absence of War addresses still ring true today; namely what has happened to the UK’s left wing movement and does one have to adopt central ground to win an election?
Revisiting the play twenty years on, it is interesting to see the similarities and differences of the Labour Party then and now. Inspired by the research Hare was doing in the lead-up to the 1992 election campaign, Hare’s hero of the play, George Jones, was loosely based on Neil Kinnock; a politician whose party’s desire to make him electable came at the price of smothering his personality and passion. It is arguable that current Labour leader Ed Milliband faces similar challenges, namely that his charisma and dynamism isn’t coming across to the voting public. It is also very enlightening to note, in retrospect, just how much the Labour Party of 1992 were on the brink of a major change in direction. They were clearly terrified of controversy and giving voice to the party’s genuine passion for social and economic justice. It was this desperation to be elected even if at the compromise of Labour’s original ideology, which paved the way perfectly for Tony Blair’s rebranded ‘New Labour’ party.
Hare’s electric dialogue is brought to life wonderfully in this production. Jeremy Herrin’s direction is slick and stylish and the quality of performances delivered by the twelve strong cast is truly remarkable. David Hare was adamant in his assertion that ‘The Absence of War’ wasn’t intended to be an attack on politicians or their advisors. These characters are not Machiavellian monsters or deliberately dishonest, devious and cynical and the cast are all successful in portraying the likeability, vulnerability and fallibility of the party members. Reece Dinsdale gives a powerhouse performance as self educated northerner and idealist George Jones MP and his scenes with political advisor Oliver Dix (Cyril Nri) and the Rt Hon Malcolm Pryce MP (Gyuri Sarossy) pulsate with energy and tension. Charlotte Lucas is superb as publicity advisor Lindsay Fontaine. She plays Fontaine’s urging of George Jones to speak openly about his thoughts and feelings, with unfaltering passion. Maggie McCarthy brings a wonderfully warm energy to diary secretary Gwenda Aaron and the Rt Hon Bryden Thomas MP’s inspirational speech to George pleading with him to regain the fire in his belly that was so prevalent in his early years, is delivered exceptionally by Barry McCarthy and is a definite highlight of this production.
The Absence of War is an absolute treat of a production from beginning to end. Not only is this a production of remarkable quality, it is also fascinating to see just how much history has repeated itself. One of Hare’s reasons for writing the play was to address the Labour party’s singular gift for losing elections; a gift which was and still is causing the UK so much social and economic suffering.