Though advance media speculation has been intense about how much the piece is inspired by real-life figures including former culture secretary Tessa Jowell and her estranged fraudster husband, Hare insists in a programme note that, unlike his two other recent NT plays drawing on public events, The Permanent Way (“pure fact, transcribed”) and Stuff Happens (“one-third transcribed, two-thirds imagined”), “Gethsemane is pure fiction”.
Gethsemane is billed as a “play about British public life (which) looks at the way business, media and politics are now intertwined to nobody’s advantage” and is directed by NT associate director Howard Davies with design by Bob Crowley. The cast features Tamsin Greig (who plays an embattled home secretary), Stanley Townsend (an ebullient fundraiser) and Anthony Calf (a drum-playing prime minister) as well as Daniel Ryan, Pip Carter, Jessica Raine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Adam James.
Critical reaction ranged from the scorching (“easily the best play of the year”) to the decidedly lukewarm (“watery insignificance”). One thing critics did agree on, however, was the quality of the performances – in particular the “brilliant” Anthony Calf, the “wonderful” Tamsin Greig and the “splendidly charismatic” Stanley Townsend. Among the leading gripes were the play’s lack of immediate topicality – one critic branding its themes “old hat” – though others felt its wider resonance and “beautifully plotted drama” were more than enough to compensate. All in all, it appears the hype was justified.
- by Theo Bosanquet