Theatre has proved one of the greatest allies of those seeking to speak to truth to power throughout the ages. It is, and should be, dangerous; amplifying the words that nobody else is prepared to even whisper. Anything less, however gratifyingly fluffy and escapist, is not theatre but a different creature: an entertainment. Valid and valued, yes. But life-altering? World-changing? Unlikely.
Uncompromising, mouthy, unrepentant… and exactly what we all need to hear
Look at any list of the greatest plays ever written and you will see humanity writ large: each, in their own way, lighting a beacon to pass from ear to ear and generation to generation. And there is simply something about watching a character move through a story in front of our eyes which is more likely to elicit a call to arms than reading cold hard words on a newspaper page. And so, Tim Walker’s Bloody Difficult Women – about the brief tenure of Theresa May as Prime Minister and Gina Miller as one of the thorns in her side - should be required viewing not because it is funny (although it is), and not because it records the unresolved female fight against male puppeteers (although it does), but because it brings the bones of truth to light.
Bloody Difficult Women – the title is taken from the sobriquet coined for Theresa May by former minister Ken Clarke – chronicles the febrile post-Brexit landscape in the UK and how both women fought to cling to their own sense of duty, belief and self against monumental emotional odds, institutional misogyny and governmental machinations.
When a 52% majority voted to leave the European Union in 2016, it required ‘Article 50’ to be invoked to set the wheels for this withdrawal into action. May wanted to prove that although not in favour of the result, she was prepared to do this in order to uphold the will of the people. Miller wanted to ensure that Parliament was consulted rather than the decision be taken by Executive command. The childish foot-stamping and incitement to violence unleashed by some reports of the ensuing court case may not have proved journalism’s finest hour; but will certainly aid A Level exam students of future years to plot the most salient moments of decline in the standards of public political discourse.
If it is hard now to remember a time when the country was not divided according to degrees of EU loyalty, then this play will take you back to those pyretic days of 2016 which – ignoble and iniquitous though they were – now seem almost quaint set against the backdrop of Prime Ministerial candidates falling over themselves to promise fewer and fewer opportunities to register dissent.
Bloody Difficult Women, then, is a vitally important piece. But don’t take my word for it. For just as totalitarian regimes throughout time have banned theatre and burned books, this production comes with the badge of honour of having dodged legal threats to get it stopped in its tracks. Because it seems that for some at the top of the UK establishment tree, ‘free speech’ is only worth protecting when they are attacking: not when their own actions become a matter of public record.
For whilst writer Tim Walker states that he was keen to follow the Chekhov maxim to create neither about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but just ‘people’, there is no doubting that Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre doesn’t emerge from this interpretation smelling of roses. It is a very funny, highly engaging performance by Andrew Woodall, which centres on Dacre’s tantrums when his belligerent headlines fail to gain the traction he desires (essentially out of the EU and into the House of Lords). Yes: that Paul Dacre. The Paul Dacre who was until recently in the frame to become Ofcom Chairman. The Paul Dacre who may well get his ermine wet-dream realised in Johnson’s resignation (Dis)Honours list. Think it stinks? This is the play for you.
Although… listening to audience members as they shuffled off into George Street after the show, it was fascinating to catch snippets of conversation from those who had had no idea of the shenanigans surrounding this low point of the Brexit fallout. Many had followed the story closely, of course; but there were open mouths and shaking heads, incredulous that one man could wield such influence over not just the electorate but the government of the day. And therein lies, I would argue, the raison d’etre for the play. For whilst, of course, there is a goodly imaginative thread (three of the characters are not real people but representations of self-interest, ambition and conscience) the script is rooted in a truth we all need to know.
Not that this is a dry 90 minutes. It is packed with gags from start to finish, and the exceptional cast zip through the unedifying episode with a deftness of touch which keeps us hooked throughout.
Of the other characterisations of living people, Jessica Turner is emotionally angular as Theresa May: damned if she does or doesn’t. And whilst history will surely be rather kinder to her than those airless days of her Premiership; this is not so much an early Renaissance as a more fleshed-out representation of her spiky public persona. Decent enough, human enough, but on a parallel moral track that Miller can never quite reconcile. Rita Estevanovich presents Gina Miller as quietly secure, drawing on huge inner reserves of strength, her husband, and memories of previous defeat to take on a challenge that may win a public victory at terrible personal cost. As Alan Miller, the solid (and largely) nurturing husband, Adam Jackson-Smith has some of the best lines; – though I suspect that we may disagree about whether friendships are worth losing over politics. In more representative roles, Graham Seed – always excellent – brings a vulnerability and sadness to a predatory Whitehall Mandarin; and George Jones represents the extent to which two younger characters are prepared to bend in the face of unacceptable professional pressure.
Directed by Stephen Unwin, this play is refreshingly bloody and wonderfully difficult. It refuses to be silent: is uncompromising, mouthy, unrepentant… and exactly what we all need to hear.