Pros: Relevant, funny and poignant. Excellent fodder for the water cooler.
Cons: More of a “heads up” than a con – having some understanding of modern British politics, particularly the 1980s and 1990s will give more insight into the show.
If it weren’t for the nods to the nineteen-nineties in Mike Britton’s set and costume design, all power suits and small chunky computers, I would have thought The Absence of War was set in the present.
The show follows a beleaguered Labour Party in the lead up to an election. It is cursed with an honourable, likeable leader, who can’t quite perform under the pressure of the public eye. This scenario does hit quite close to home in 2015 Britain. However, David Hare’s play, part three in a trilogy, was first performed in 1993 and was inspired by Hare’s research during the 1992 election in which Labour, then led by Neil Kinnock, lost. It explores the struggle between the Labour party made by ‘the machine’ and the Labour party made by the essence of the leader: which is the recipe for victory? The answer in the case of the show (and perhaps in reality depending on the decade) seems to be neither.
Jeremy Herrin’s production of The Absence of War is just as representative of David Hare’s work as any I have seen, almost as formulaic as the structure of the play itself. For every punchy monologue dripping with rhetoric there is an equally accentuated score that ushers in the next scene. For each revelatory scene that parallels real-life debate, issues or events there is slick and efficient direction and attitudinal staging. But this, as with the writing itself, is a formula that works.
Though urgent with its political rigour, the play is nigh Shakespearean in its structure as a tragedy. However, while the relevant subject matter forces you to smirk at its similarities to today, that sense of story and investment in the characters is never lost.
Reece Dinsdale’s George Jones is a strong tragic hero, admirable and easily pitiable as his old school human and political values facilitate his own demise. His supporting cast deliver equally nuanced performances that re-define the concept of loyalty and betrayal much like a politician’s team might do in the real world.
Despite being born of the creative left, The Absence of War is fairly balanced in its examination of ‘The Labour Party’s singular gift for losing elections’ (David Hare in a speech to the Fabian Society, printed in The Independent, Jan 1994 and re-printed in the show’s programme). Never stepping over the line to didacticism, the play instead invites audiences to enter a dialogue that questions political strategy, not offering an answer but definitely searching for one.
An important production as we all step up to the polls next month.
Presented by: Rose Theatre Kingston, Headlong and Sheffield Theatres
Directed by: Jeremy Herrin
Written by: David Hare
Booking Until: 25 April at The Rose, on tour until 9 May
Box Office: 020 8174 0090
Booking Link: https://uk.patronbase.com/_RoseTheatreKingston/Productions/2012/Performances