We’ve just come back from watching actor and playwright Simon Woods’ Hansard at the National Theatre, which is directed by 41-year old, Washington, D.C.-based, Cambridge graduate Simon Godwin. Woods’ debut as a playwright had its premiere on this stage two months ago and is only showing until 25th November, with all except tomorrow’s show sold out. 39-year old Old Etonian Woods is clearly not lacking good connections to get his first attempt featured on the nation’s most prestigious stage.
While reading English at Magdalen College, Oxford, in the early Noughties, he was in a relationship with Rosamund Pike for two years. A few years later the two would play lovers Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley in Pride & Prejudice. For the past ten years, Woods has been in a relationship with Christopher Bailey CBE, aged 48, the chief executive of Burberry, the British fashion empire.
We weren’t initially planning on watching the play, but then Ms B got her hands on two tickets for £15 each, so we thought: why not. Hansard is the name of the official transcription of all parliamentary debates at Westminster Palace, and the term is presumably used here to refer to the records of the protagonists’ ‘debates’ at their residence.
All photos, including feature photo (c) National Theatre
The play is set on a Saturday morning in the summer of 1988, towards the end of the Thatcher years, at a lovely country mansion “just outside Burford” in the Cotswolds. It is the home of grey-haired Tory cabinet member Robin Hesketh (Alex Jennings) and his deadly bored, alcoholic, leftie, stay-home wife of 30 years, Diana (Lindsay Duncan CBE). In the first scene Robin arrives back from Leeds. He is pleased with himself, because he feels that he has done well on a TV debate the night before, which had been the reason for his visit to the north. Usually he stays in London during the week.
His wife immediately starts trying to pick a fight with him at all costs, despite his efforts to appease her. She bangs on and on about how Tory politics are heartless (they are, obviously), how Tories manage to make people forget that an expensive education has absolutely nothing to do with an understanding of the world and its workings (they do, and it doesn’t, obviously), and how the Tories’ stance on homosexuality in the 1980s was outdated (it was).
The varying dialogues and monologues are entertaining, lively, sometimes witty, eloquent, and the audience regularly bursts out into laughter. The best parts are where it gets vulgar (“The insatiable desire of the people of this country to be f**ked by an Old Etonian.”), where it’s ironically self-referential or referring to the audience (something along the lines “it just goes on forever and there is no intermission”, or, staring at the audience “Look, they’re just awful!”), where it points out the similarities between today and back then (something along the lines “we can do whatever we like, we’ll always win if the Labour party nominates those dreadful geography teachers”), or where it gets emotional. There are some bits towards the end where 90% of the audience have dry throats and wet eyes.
The acting by Olivier Award winners Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan is absolutely world-class, riveting, and, to be frank, it is the only thing that makes this play watchable. The play itself mostly lacks structure, plot, development of characters, connecting lines, ideas, surprise, and most everything else. It is not a noteworthy play and let’s hope it will soon be forgotten.
It is true that Woods is good at making dialogues and monologues sound fluid and natural, but other than that I found the ‘script’ itself hugely irritating: the constant, repetitive nagging by Di, the same old platitudes about right-wing and left-wing politics by both characters. Also, while there are still worthy fights to be fought over gay rights in the UK: it is 1988. It is not like gay people face the same obstacles they used to face, say, a bit over twenty years earlier, before the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexuality. Boy George’s Culture Club’s “Do you really want to hurt me” had reached #1 of the UK single charts six years earlier. I am not at all saying that being gay in the UK was easy back then and I’m sure it’s not even that easy now. It’s just that it doesn’t strike me as plausible that in 1988 a lady in her 60s would have such a strong focus on gay rights. Without adding any spoilers: it becomes clear at the end, why the topic is so close to her heart, but until that time it just seems a tad tedious and over the top to bang on and on about it.
If it weren’t for the brilliant acting, this would be a 1.5 out of 5. Because of these thespians’ thorough theatrical thunder this third-rate homage to Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is going to be a 3 out of 5 for us.