Theatre Review: The Absence of War (election week special) at the Theatre Royal, Bath
This review was first written for The Public Reviews
David Hare’s forensic examination of the recurring electoral misfortunes of the Labour Party, loosely based on events surrounding the 1992 election, ends its 2015 tour with an election week stopover in Bath.
Originally staged back in 1993, The Absence of War follows the fortunes of George Jones, a man who has risen from humble beginnings to become Labour’s leader, but not without sacrificing some of his own spontaneous passion to get there. Privately charismatic, in public – shackled by advisers into staying strictly on message – he polls as “boring”. Even his own backbenchers are losing faith. As his antagonist, Shadow Chancellor Malcolm Pryce, remarks, “it isn’t the party doesn’t believe in you, they smell you don’t believe in yourself.”
In 1992 it was Neil Kinnock as Labour’s leader who failed to become Prime Minister, but in Headlong’s revival, staged in association with Sheffield Theatres and Rose Theatre Kingston, George’s inability to convey his personal passions to the electorate could foreshadow the problems of Ed Miliband. His difficult relationship with Malcolm anticipates the internal power struggle of the Blair/Brown years and the obsession of his unelected advisers with focus groups and keeping on message encapsulates so much of what still alienates many voters today.
The landscape of the 1990s is reflected in bulky TV screens showing Ceefax headlines and news, communication by pager, smoking in the office and a reference to Pebble Mill. Yet Hare’s incisive writing frequently holds just as much of a mirror to our own society as it did over twenty years ago; reflecting the establishment’s predilection for looking after its own and raising questions of authenticity versus electability, the corrosive ruthlessness needed to grasp power and the vacuum that exists without a unifying enemy force to provide a common purpose.
Reece Dinsdale as George captures all the complexity of a man at odds with himself: confident yet full of self-doubt, striving for power yet imprisoned by its pursuit. Trevor Fox recently stepped successfully into this role at short notice due to Dinsdale’s illness and it was hard to see how his performance could have been bettered. Yet Dinsdale does, quite simply, take back full ownership and his interpretation is phenomenal.
The rest of the cast is equally strong. Gyuri Sarossy delivers a finely nuanced performance as Malcolm, the next leader in waiting, particularly in his aircraft hangar showdown with George. Cyril Nri is calculating and efficient as political adviser Oliver Dix, Charlotte Lucas’ publicity chief Lindsay Fontaine fluently spouts focus group percentages and Maggie McCarthy is indefatigably down to earth as George’s diary secretary Gwenda.
Using coloured backdrops, projection and silhouettes to great effect, under Jeremy Herrin’s direction, the production captures the maelstrom of election campaigning in all its frenetic energy.
In this its final week, The Absence of War is honed to perfection, as much a reflection of our contemporary dilemmas as it is a period piece. On election night 2015, David Cameron and Ed Miliband might be wishing for an outcome like we used to have – with one of two parties emerging the clear winner. Tickets for Thursday 7th May are available at 1992 prices – how better to be reminded of the triumph and despair that awaits our political leaders than to catch this coruscating production as the polls close.