The Absence of War, Weds 8th April 2015, The Oxford Playhouse
'Politics comes down to people' was one of the central themes of last night's performance of David Hare's The Art of War, and the cast and crew from Headlong Theatre put on a wonderful ensemble performance to explore the characters involved in order to underline this premise. An enthralled audience watched as George Jones, MP and Labour Party Leader (Reece Dinsdale), attempted to out-Tory the Tories and get Labour into power - at any cost.
The play is very loosely based on the Labour Party leadership in the run up to the 1992 General Election (Neil Kinnock's now notorious failure to get elected) but it also explores some of the wider and more perennial questions which are inherent in British politics, and crucially the play delves into the decrepit state of socialism in this country. Given that a General Election is looming and we are all unavoidably embroiled in electioneering, now is an appropriate time to stage this play and to explore such issues as strategic versus conviction politics, the roles and responsibilities of the individual in a democracy and the state of this country's left-wing politics.
In the play the characters are not stereotypical politicians. As David Hare has stated "politicians are not represented as deliberately dishonest. They are not cynical, devious or lying. Nor are they controlled like puppets by brilliant manipulators who whisper in their ears and tell them what to say. Instead they seem to be grappling with the best intentions with problems that are indeed intractable, and often to be trapped in situations in which there is no one right course". This is challenging for the actors' performance but together Jones' inner circle (Jones, his minder Andrew Buchan, played by James Harkness, and Cyril Nri as Oliver Dix , his political adviser) flesh out their leader's character, background and politics.
The introduction of a new publicity adviser, Lindsay Fontaine (Charlotte Lucas), undermines this triumvirate and her role is pivotal in the play as this character questions many of the strategies and policies being used in the campaign and gives Hare a chance to explore these issues more fully. Ultimately it is Fontaine who encourages Jones to compromise his strategy and openly express himself, which contributes greatly to his downfall.
It is hard to know whether this play is a tragedy, a comedy or a history. There are many elements of classical tragedy (for which we find Jones has a penchant) not least of which is Jones' central role as the fatally flawed hero. But there are also funny moments, and Maggi McCarthy as Gwenda Aaron, Jones' diary secretary, showed great comic timing in the many one-liners she used to chivvy Jones along. Ultimately, it is the historic element of the play which I found most revealing: we see the genesis of modern, media driven politics with the use of pagers and the necessity for the participants to be on message. The characters' constant referral to Ceefax alludes to the growth of the virtual world and the impact of instant comment and social media on our politics today. Other simple audio visual prompts were also used to effectively stage the play - giving the impression of Armistice Day at the Cenotaph, Jones' speech to the party faithful and the fateful TV interview with Linus Frank (Don Gallagher).
The Absence of War was actually written by Hare as the final part of a trilogy - the other two earlier plays explore issues around the police and the judiciary - and I was surprised to learn, with the benefit of hindsight, that the press and media were not the subject of one of these plays. It is clear here that the Frank interview contributes greatly to Jones' demise and when ultimately he decides to express his convictions rather than tout the agreed party line you want to cheer - but all this optimism is crushed as the speech falls apart and Jones' retreats to pat, pre-prepared statements on the economy. Ultimately, you are left feeling that Jones is not a conviction politician but a man convicted by his own ambition to win at all costs. In this kow-towing to the media and stifling of personality and personal beliefs we see the early steps on the road to "New Labour" and the beginning of sound and fury over substance politics from which we are all currently suffering on a day to day basis as the current election unfolds. The issues raised and discussed in The Absence of War are thought-provoking and challenging, particularly in the light of our newly developing model of coalition politics, and I recommend this play to anyone planning to vote on May 7th.