This revival of David Hare’s political drama, The Absence of War, is timely. Indeed, it’s so topical that when he was asked, as the play set out on its tour, how much he had changed of the text, he replied: “Not a word!” Set in a kind of parallel-world Labour Party in 1992 as it headed for a famous defeat when it was trying to unseat the Tories after many a year, the echoes that it sets up with the election of 2015 are remarkable, loud, thought-provoking and also worrying. We have been through Blair and Cameron and a major economic upheaval since then, as well as a presence of a few wars, but a lot of the issues are the same once more. The play text is, therefore, very strong for a contemporary audience still.
The characters and their motivations are remarkably believable; and the issue of how much reality the electorate can take and how much spin is necessary to make a party electable is, if anything, more pressing than ever. The aspirations, ideals, mendacity and suppressions of truth are all portrayed dramatically, especially in the confrontation between George Jones and Malcolm Price, the two opposing branches of a Labour Party in trouble. The sets are serviceably modern and the TV monitors and other media references are superbly handled to give a slightly surreal atmosphere. The performances of Reece Dinsdale as George Jones (the Neil Kinnock figure); Don Gallagher as both Charles Kendrick, the Prime Minister (think John Major?) and Linus Frank, the smarmy broadcaster; and Gyuri Sarossy as Malcolm Price, a figure evoking he late John Smith waiting to take over the party, are especially strong; with a very fine turn by Maggie McCarthy as Gwenda the Diary Secretary. Barry McCarthy also comes across as a fine voice of the party in his role as Bryden Thomas. The play is focused mainly on the perennial Labour quandary of whether to stick to the high ground of principles or take the low ground of making itself more consciously electable, less socialist, more middle ground. The ensemble work is excellent and the production effectively evokes the corridors of power. Jeremy Herrin has done an excellent job as director; the costume and lighting design is especially clean; and the video design is seamlessly blended into the show.
It would take me a very long essay to discuss the questions and thoughts that the text evokes – a very strong, witty text, cleverly paced and building to some remarkable climactic moments in the second half; with some great one-liners memorably thrown at you all along the way. Essentially the play is a serious debate about politics, politicians, political ethics and the quest for power. It is also something of a lesson on the history of the Labour Party that is relevant to this election as well. This production has been playing and touring since February and is in Kingston at the Rose from 14 – 25 April. You would definitely find it stimulating, provocative and worth the trouble if you can get along to see it. After Kingston it is going to Cambridge and Bath to complete its tour. Check it out if you can. You will be pleased that you did.