“Labour doesn’t want votes” is the critical sit-up-and-take-notice line from I’m Not Running, the latest play from the pen of David Hare, the unchallenged Time Lord of political drama in the UK (with all due respect to Johnny-come-lately James Graham, of course). It tells us that in Hare’s intensive exposé of socialist thinking over the last three decades, where Labour is now, with the Rise of Jeremy Corbyn, is in the wilderness. Which is exactly where it was back in 1993 with Hare’s other great Labour Party drama Absence of War.
Hare takes that sacred cow known as the NHS as his major theme and his backdrop to the seemingly implacable problems that beset the Labour Party which prevent it from taking power of its own volition now and quite probably well into the future – unless the Conservatives finally spontaneously combust.
It’s neatly summed up by the young political researcher Meredith (Amaka Okafor), recently graduated from Oxford, where the Labour Society rejects every argument and proposition unless it is the purest central ideological line to take which everyone must adhere to or be abjured. Anyone who has dipped into Twitter, or read articles in the Canary or Skwawkbox, will know that this philosophy is now prevalent throughout “the Movement” and that
bona fide political discourse is dead. Okafor is excellent in the role of the wannabe political agitator who finds herself bogged down at every turn by a kind of polity quicksand.
Hosting us through the idealogical minefield is Pauline Gibson, an immaculate performance of wit and wisdom, charm and grit, by Siận Brooke. Elected to parliament as an independent on a single issue ticket (hospital
closure), Pauline has had to battle all her life: abusive father, alcoholic mother, chauvinist boyfriend, unhelpful line-manager and, ultimately, the monolithic macho-machine of a political party that really doesn’t like women, is scared of women, and cannot countenance a woman as its leader. That is Hare’s defining motif in this play and it seems to beg the question: why is the most competent, most effective, current politician on the opposition benches not leader of the Labour Party? Pauline’s passion, determination, her demeanour and even the hairstyle are all reminiscent of Yvette Cooper.
In what might be deemed as a slightly contrived plot-line the former chauvinist university boyfriend turns up later as putative chauvinist Labour Leader Jack Gould – meaning that if Pauline decides that she will run for leader (having secretly joined the Labour Party) then they’ll be up against each other. Alex Hassell as smooth-talking, quiet-life seeking, non-confrontational Jack knows all the political tricks and emotional get-out clauses and is able to navigate his way around the polity quicksand.
Jack doesn’t like single-issue politics. Jack doesn’t like interlopers upsetting the well-honed, time-honoured political applecart. And frankly, Jack doesn’t like women, at least not unless they’re the dutiful-wife type who don’t threaten his manful virility blanket. So, despite constantly protesting the opposite, he doesn’t actually like Pauline much. And the news that she might run against him for the leadership sends him into what Vince Cable might describe as an exotic spresm. Jack, in effect, is the steady straight man role to Pauline’s firebrand campaigner. Hassell plays it with a controlled, smouldering exasperation which can’t help bursting into indignant mini-firestorms as he discovers the only way around the quicksand is through Pauline’s own personal Charybdis.
Jack is also used by Hare as the catalyst for the feminist sub-theme in the play, tapping into the current mood of women demanding that their voices are heard and, as ever, channelling the zeitgeist into his contemporary political commentary. He is expertly aided in this by Brooke and Hassell who together are a compelling double-act and the in-depth exploration of their, at times, tortured relationship is an engaging feature of the play.
Pauline’s sidekick/PR man Sandy Mynott supplies a lot of Hare’s trademark humour with his snappy ripostes and put-downs and with his verbal jousting with Pauline. Joshua McGuire is funny and authentic here and shrewdly portrays Hare’s satire on the power of the press and the unavoidable spin vortex. Liza Sadovy, lying in her Tracey Emin-style bed, is suitably debauched as Pauline’s mother and Brigid Zengeni is bright and breezy as Paulin’s unsympathetic hospital boss.
Key to this production on the cavernous Lyttelton stage is Ralph Myers’s set, whose uncomplicated two sides of a building on a revolve give us outside and inside perspectives of the various locations – student room, hospital, house interiors and a parliamentary office. Integral to the concept though is the use of the walls as giant TV screens – whilst slowly revolving – to show pre-recorded clips of interviews with the main protagonists and, at the denouement, a live feed of Pauline as she makes her speech on stage. This is classic, and highly effective, simplicity. Lighting Designer Jon Clark enhances this with his cleverly rigged states – never easy when a moving acting area is involved – though I wasn’t sure about the shadows on the wall in the office scene: I assume it was deliberate but I found it disconcerting and a little distracting. Paul Arditti adds realism to the concept with his functional sound design and the whole technical concept complements and enhances Hare’s rolling-location and time-slip style of drama that he does so well and which director Neil Armfield gets and gets across. A consummate and enthralling production.
I’m Not Running is another laudable addition to the Hare canon of political exegeses and as such is a must-see show: if you can’t get to the South Bank it will be broadcast by National Theatre Live on 31 January 2019: make a
Review by Peter Yates
Do I run? This is the question which is facing Pauline Gibson. She has spent her life as a doctor, the inspiring leader of a local health campaign. When she crosses paths with her old boyfriend, Jack Gould, a stalwart loyalist in Labour Party politics, she’s faced with an agonising decision.
What’s involved in sacrificing your private life and your peace of mind for something more than a single issue? Does she dare?
David Hare’s explosive new play portrays the history of a twenty-year intimate friendship and its public repercussions.
Cast includes Siân Brooke, Alex Hassell, Joshua McGuire, Amaka Okafor, Liza Sadovy and Brigid Zengeni.
Directed by Neil Armfield, set design by Ralph Myers, costume design by Sussie Juhlin-Wallén, lighting design by Jon Clark, sound design by Paul Arditti and music by Alan John.
Broadcast live as part of NT Live to cinemas worldwide on 31 January 2019