If, unlike me, you include politics, the public-school system or pub quizzing in your CV’s ‘Other Interests’ section, you’ll already know that Hansard is the name given to the edited verbatim transcripts of all Parliamentary debates. For the predominately white, middle-class, public school educated men who work there, having one’s name documented within Hansard’s hallowed pages is seen as documented proof that the time they have spent on this earth has been worthwhile and that they will be remembered for the words they have spoken in perpetuity. Of course, to accept that the spoken defines the speaker, one must ignore the idea that what we say often bears little relation at all to what we do. Or what we’ve done. Or what we really feel.
Perfectly pleasant entertainment.
This is the not-too-shocking-for-most contention that runs through this first play to be written by Simon Woods, being performed, unusually for new writing at the NT – and rather unfortunately for the play – on the large Lyttleton stage. It’s a metaphor that’s writ in big bold capitals for us by the discovery of a real personal diary, the Inner Hansard if you like, that is the catalyst for the explosion that takes place within the 30-year marriage of a Tory MP and his wife. Whether it was originally planned to be the throughline and the title for the play is questionable, as it is somewhat clunky, but it does at least attempt to act as a cohesion for the jumble of other topics that Woods seems to be flirting with, but never committing to.
The unfolding of hidden truths that have been remained unspoken for so long takes place one sunny Saturday morning in 1988 – the height of Thatcher’s Britain – at the Cotswolds home of MP Robin Hesketh and his wife Diane, in fine performances played sympathetically by Alan Jennings and Lindsey Duncan. The moment he arrives home from the week he spends at “the London flat”, he’s a blur of pinstripes and Oddbins bags, always busy, always fussing, always on to the next thing on the To-Do list. In contrast she is the definition of louche, unhurried and drifting, still wearing her floaty dressing gown at the late hour of 11am – as though nursing the remnants of a hangover.
The opposing battle lines are drawn. The sniping tone of discourse made clear. And so it remains for the most part a volley of insults and constant sniping that, for this couple, have become habitual. Social norms are eradicated; “How are You”s replaced by “Aren’t You Dead” and debates over whether Cancer or AIDS should be chosen to change that, whilst “How Was Work” becomes page after page of Mock The Week-style Tory-bashing monologues that seem unending.
The many “Tories Are Shit Bastard Fucks to Blame for Everything Bad” routines may be funny (and timely) but they get laborious and, when subjects include references to the Guardian’s typos, seem a little old hat. One can’t help but wonder if the diatribes are really any more than a mouthpiece for the writer to show that his aren’t the stereotyped views you might assume would be held by an actor, schooled at Eton, who is best known for playing the posh one in various TV costume dramas. Ok. Point made. Now come and have a little sit down and we’ll get you a pint of that real ale you like.
We know it has been a particularly difficult week for the MP as he tries to stop their tense banter several times, explaining that he has had…well, a particularly difficult week. Subtlety doesn’t have much of a role here. At one point he makes a throwaway reference to these particular difficulties having something to do with his involvement in the passing of some Local Government Act. But it’s 1988. Who remembers what was going on in politics back then….? (Put your hands down in the back. Yes, this is as subtly placed as a Murder She Wrote clue.) What could be taken to be the meat of the plot – the secret revealed – is set up with a number of those supposedly a propos of nothing remarks that begin “I was thinking about the time…” or “It was the day I met…” or “Do you remember when…”. Those picture-painting paragraphs that may as well end by saying “and I’ve wanted to kill you ever since that moment” or “and then I realised how true pain can really feel”. Unfortunately, they don’t.
Most are given by the needling Diane and centre around memories of their (conspicuously absent…) son; when he won a solitary prize at Sports Day… for jumping; when he cried his heart out as the other children laughed at him on his birthday; when she was chastised for mollycoddling the sensitive boy. So, when the Act is mentioned again – and this time with more explanation of its infamous content – it doesn’t take a genius to see where this paradox of circumstance is heading.
It’s perfectly pleasant entertainment that gives good E-ROI (emotional return on investment – it’s going to catch on, believe me). It just could have been better if it had gone through further drafts before being hurled into the spotlight. As it stands, it gets waylaid in its confusion as to whether it is a comment on politics per se, Conservatives in particular, the value of marriage, sexuality and acceptance – or solely about this historic piece of legislation. In trying to cover it all, it becomes a confused self within an old-fashioned play structure that is both unchallenging and unsurprising. Whether you see it like that from behind the tear or two you could easily shed towards the end is another thing altogether.
Like many of the new plays the NT has staged over recent years – I’m thinking Beginning, Nine Night and Home, I’m Darling in particular – the play does no harm and you could do a lot worse for your ticket money. But it’s like having a meal that you remember solely for eating rather than taste. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, like its predecessors, it goes on to have a short, semi-successful run in the West End. But I don’t believe this is writing that represents the best of what’s being written right now. Reading the text may be educative but watching the performance lacks excitement.
Hansard will be broadcast live to over 700 UK cinemas and many more worldwide on 7 November – now for £20 a pop, this is worth considering as something for a chilly post Bonfire Night date.