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Review Round-up: Hare Keeps Pace With Critics?

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David Hare’s new political drama Gethsemane, his 14th original play for the National Theatre, received its world premiere last night (11 November 2008, previews from 11 November) in the NT Cottesloe, where its already sold-out repertory run continues until 24 February 2009 ahead of a UK tour (See Also Today’s 1st Night Photos).

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.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) – “David Hare’s new play is one of his very best and easily the best play of the year. It draws on aspects of contemporary public life – and characters – to weave a beautifully plotted drama of lost idealism, hypocrisy in journalism … This is not a play like Alistair Beaton’s satirical, Blair-bashing Feelgood. It is stamped with moral seriousness, freighted with complex argument, yet gleaming with absolute theatrical clarity … Bob Crowley’s design is a brilliantly adaptable grey squash court on which Howard Davies’ probing, icily authoritative production is immensely enhanced by the flashing cityscape projections of Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington, the witty musical melange of Dominic Muldowney and sound designer Christopher Shutt, and the truly outstanding costumes (not for the first time this year) of Fotini Dimou. An exhilarating, triumphant evening.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “David Hare\'s new play Gethsemane transcends the publicity. It has been touted as a juicy piece about Labour\'s cash-for-honours problems. It turns out to be much richer than that - the despairing cry of a socialist romantic at the managerial pragmatism of modern government and at the separation of politics from vision. It stands comparison with Hare\'s very best work. His theme is the intersection of business, media and politics; and he illustrates this with a plot of pleasing complexity … What also gives the play its life is Hare\'s understanding of how politics works. The best scene shows the beleaguered home secretary finally getting an audience with the PM … What follows is an episode worthy of Granville Barker\'s Waste in which the icily manipulative leader tries to steer his minister into resigning. She, however, plays her cards with great skill, and aims unerringly at his Achilles heel: his allegiance to wealth rather than his core voters. As played by the coolly resolute Tamsin Greig and the tactically resourceful Anthony Calf, the scene carries the authentic smell of Downing Street battles.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Those of us who hoped David Hare’s latest play would live up to titillating advance reports and launch a direct attack upon the Blair administration’s loose morality, its dogged pursuit of financial donors to the party and that prime minister’s love of big money, were disappointed last night. Hare never really faces up to the eternal problem of deciding whether political parties should be financed by public money or should raise their own funds from business or trade unions — with all the attendant threat of corruption … Written in 17 scenes, whose locations are vividly conveyed by video projections, Gethsemane loses its sense of purpose in the rambling diffuseness of its hectic plot. Hare is beset once again by an understandable fury that the high hopes of Labour have been dashed on the rocks of warfare, with socialism diluted to watery insignificance. Howard Davies’ suitably cool production cannot disguise the fact that the melodramatics of the action are not well suited to a play intent upon lamenting the decline and fall of Labour.”
    • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “The problem with writing topical plays is that they can so quickly seem old hat. Had it been staged during Tony Blair\'s last days in Downing Street, when the cops were regularly calling round for a cosy chat, this drama about Labour Party funding and dodgy connections with the filthy rich would have seemed a very hot potato indeed … There\'s holding the mirror up to nature and there\'s writing plays that seem more like a dramatisation of a lengthy article in the New Statesman and, I\'m afraid this play inclines to the latter … Anthony Calf makes a splendidly feline PM and Stanley Townsend is superbly charismatic as the pop tycoon turned Party fundraiser. There are some sharp points and witty lines, but whenever Hare tries to make us feel for his one-dimensional characters, even these fine actors cannot make us care.”
    • Alice Jones in the Independent (three stars) – “Hare has drawn these characters with the broadest of brush-strokes: Fallon is a graduate of both the school of tough knocks and the university of life. A hairdresser-turned-music-mogul-turned-party-bigwig with slicked-back ponytail and tasteless designer cardigans, he has pulled himself up ‘from Hendon to Hampstead’, while gimlet-eyed Guest, played with wonderful rigour by Tamsin Greig, is a career automaton who can\'t be in a room alone with her daughter. The hip PM – a brilliant Anthony Calf – is found in full Boden gear behind his drum kit. And then there\'s a greasy hack – called Geoff Benzine, for goodness\' sake – who provides a sleazy contrast with Lori, a teacher and gifted musician with burning beliefs … This is a world where rich men are uncultured oiks, politicians are inhuman, comprehensive school teachers are saints and journalists are slimeballs. Christmas has come early to the National Theatre – go along to boo and hiss at the biggest political panto in town.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “Though no timeframe is specified in the programme, the play would seem to be set early last year — or at least at a time when a party insider could say that there’s no reason why a government that runs so hugely successful an economy ‘shouldn’t be in power for ever’ … There’s sharpness and wit here and even a semblance of balance in what finally comes across as a pretty cynical attack on cynicism. Adam James’ journo may be an implausibly hostile creation, a joky sketch writer turned statutory rapist turned investigative reporter, but at least he’s allowed to argue that a nosy, pushy press is better than no press … Parts of the play, for instance Meredith’s grilling by Anthony Calf’s genial yet steely PM, seem to this political innocent to have some of the authenticity of Granville Barker’s Waste. But parts don’t wash, especially those involving Nicola Walker as Suzette’s ex-teacher and, improbably, the wife of Otto’s latest aide-de-camp.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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