When Greed Was Still Good: Unlike His More Didactic Work, David Hare's Latest Play, about the Blair Premiership, Is a Skilful Fusion of Drama and Politics-Insightful and Entertaining
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
Gethsemane, David Hare's 14th original play for the National Theatre (surely a case for the Competition Commission), has the luck to appear topical and the misfortune to have been overtaken by events. Just as George Osborne was being splattered over the papers in sentences that included the incriminating words Russian, oligarch, yacht, luxury and funding, the National was advertising Gethsemane on its website with a statement of the blindingly obvious--that "nothing is more important to a modern political party than fundraising. But the values of the donors can't always coincide with the professed beliefs of the Party." Yet, although Gethsemane's subject is superficially up to date, the audience soon realises it has been wheeled back in time to the premiership of Tony Blair, an age before City money ran out, when greed (the main parties agreed) was still good. As with Stuff Happens, Hare's Iraq play, this is an examination of where new Labour went so wrong. And, you might well say, to hell with Osborne; who can ever get enough of that?
Happily, and appropriately, perhaps, for a play with a biblical title (though still slightly surprisingly to me), there is a divine spark about Gethsemane that brings much of yesterday's controversies alive. Contradicting my theory that Hare is at his most reliable--as in Stuff Happens, The Permanent Way, Via Dolorosa--with his research notes by his side, Gethsemane is a work of "pure fiction" and his best for some time. True, the real-life parallels are clear: the prime minister is a Blair figure whose lair features an exercise machine and a drum kit (a guitar would have been too obvious); the home secretary is a female Jack Straw (With a troublesome daughter, rather than a son) who, like Tessa Jowell, is married to someone slightly iffy in business with an "innovative investment history"; Labour's opulent donor is a mix of Lord Levy and Harvey Weinstein. And yet, within minutes, we notice that the playwright has managed to remove these players from the national stage and reinvent them as characters in their own right on the National's.
They are led by Stanley Townsend's middle-aged, pigtailed party donor Otto Fallon, a record Producer with whom the Prime minister has become infatuated. He donates, it is explained, for one reason only: not out of ideology, not because he is fascinated by the machinery of power, not even for social kudos, but because he wants to live in a low-tax economy. For his part, the PM, Alec Beasley (Anthony Calf trying not to do a Blair impression), sees Politics as a stepping stone to becoming as filthy rich as Otto.
The play obeys a rough-and-ready religious schema in which the Good Book equals some Platonic ideal of a Labour manifesto. It is a Garden of Gethsemane beset by devils: Alec, Otto and his deliciously unpleasant aide-de-camp (and I do mean camp), Frank Pegg (Pip Carter), for three. A fourth is a sleazy journalist, the crudely named Geoff Benzine, who has slept with the home secretary's teenage daughter and exposes her drug-taking. …