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David Hare - The Absence of War

When David Hare was granted access all areas to the Labour Party to research the play that became The Absence of War during what proved to be an unsuccessful campaign to get the Party's then leader Neil Kinnock elected Prime Minister in 1992, politics looked very different. Twenty-two years after Hare's fiction infuriated some Labour grandees, Jeremy Herrin's revival for the Headlong company in co-production with the Rose Theatre Kingston and Sheffield Theatres couldn't be timed better.

With a Westminster General Election looming as Herrin's production tours to Glasgow in a post independence referendum climate in which the Scottish Labour Party are predicted by many to be all but wiped out, Hare's play looks even more pertinent.

“Yet again,” says Hare, “the Labour Party has got itself into a situation where it daren't speak, and once again they seem to have in Ed Milliband a leader who can't seem to connect with the majority of people. They've had to buy into the Tory agenda, and they've had to say that has an economic agenda, but they've also had to try and deal with the things that stem from old Labour Party ideals, like the NHS, so it is different as well.”

The Absence of War was the last in Hare's trilogy of state of the nation plays which looked at the British establishment's most hallowed institutions. Where 1990's Racing Demon looked at the Church of England and the following year's Murmuring Judges was a withering assault on the British justice system, The Absence of War charts the rise of charismatic Labour Party leader George Jones, a man smothered so much by spin doctors that any ideals he has become lost in a triumphalist quest for victory.

The fact that Hare was allowed access to the Labour Party machinery at all is something PR gurus would never allow today.

“It was because Kinnock was a theatre-goer,” explains Hare. “He talked everyone around him into letting it happen, which subsequently had everyone in a flap, saying why are you doing this, as if I was going to betray confidences, which I never did. I was pretty insulted by that, but it was a sign of the paranoia that existed within the Labour Party leadership. You have to remember as well how beleaguered they felt in a climate where no-one trusted anybody else, whereas Kinnock wanted to trust someone.”

Even when the play went on, according to Hare, Kinnock never turned on him, and it's clear that Hare retains a soft spot for the theatre-going PM who never was.

“When he saw it he was very disturbed, but he never once thought I'd betrayed him,” says Hare. “There was a tremendous dignity about Kinnock. If he lost anything, you would see Edward Heath go into a massive sulk, and Margaret Thatcher go into an even bigger sulk with a defensiveness that defined the Tory Party for twenty years, but Kinnock was really the only one who took defeat on the chin and walked away.”

Hare is arguably the most high-profile of a generation of English dramatists whose leftist ideas were forged in the revolutionary fire of 1968. Since Thatcherism gave way to New Labour and everything that followed, Hare and contemporaries such as Howard Brenton, David Edgar and Trevor Griffiths have dealt with the aftermath in different ways. Hare has even become a knight of the realm. While philosophical about how things turned out, he remains critical of an establishment he is arguably a part of.

“I came out with an analysis that turned out to be wrong,” he says of the revolutionary spirit that fired his generation. “At the end of the 60s we thought the country would either turn left or else collapse completely. Then when what happened in '79, when Thatcher was elected, which no-one foresaw, but which was the start of everything that came afterwards, with the weaker getting weaker and the stronger getting stronger, you had to think again.”

Other writers of Hare's generation have similarly dramatised the inner workings of an increasingly moribund political party. In Bill Brand, Griffiths charted an idealist young Labour MP coming to terms with real-politik in an eleven episode prime time TV series that ran in 1976. In 1983, Howard Barker's A Passion in Six Days went behind the scenes to take a critical look at an infinitely less stage-managed Labour Party conference than today's affairs. Michael Boyd's production at Sheffield Crucible caused controversy when then leader of Sheffield City Council David Blunkett walked out of the show in objection to a nude scene.

“How a blind man can object to a nude scene I don't know,” says Hare, “but it was an indication of some of the stuffiness that existed in the Labour Party at the time. “

More than two decades since his own play, might Hare be tempted to revisit what is now an infinitely glossier political landscape?

“No,” he says with certainty. “I feel that this play for me said everything I wanted to say about democratic society, but I do see parallels with what's happened since. Kendrick, the Tory Prime Minister in the play, his speeches are almost word for word what David Cameron says today. He's a PR man with a glib way with language, and is known for wheeling out his wife whenever he looks like he's going to be defeated, and that's what Cameron does.

“The big difference between when the play first appeared and what's happened twenty years later is the contempt for politicians that exists now. That came out of the expenses scandal, and when Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind are caught on camera saying the things they said that just exacerbates feeling towards politicians. When the play came out politicians were still felt to represent society at large, and you certainly can't say that of Rifkind and Straw.

“I think one of the things the play is about now is history,” says Hare. “It begins and ends at the Cenotaph, and the industries and the profound need that the Labour Party was founded on no longer exist, so if the industries don't exist, do the sentiments behind it? If the Labour Party is made up of people who've been to university and sip Cappuccinos, how can they share the same values which the party was founded on? Where is the common experience?”

In Scotland, Hare observes from a distance that “the speed with which the Scottish Labour Party is falling apart is phenomenal, and a single politician like Jim Murphy isn't enough to change that. One person isn't enough to retain the values of social justice. Society is changing, and you have to lead those changes. The Labour Party isn't leading, it's trying to catch up with them, whereas what the SNP seem to be doing is making the transition by really leading the way.

“Back in 1992 Kinnock thought the election was there for the winning, and he lost because in the end the people didn't believe in him enough to think he could be Prime Minister. Finally the electorate looked him in the eye and didn't believe he could run the country. To be rejected by thirty million people in that way, that's a bit of a blow to your self-esteem.”

The Absence of War, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 31-April 4
www.citz.co.uk
 
The Herald, March 24th 2015

ends

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