The danger of writing political plays is that reality, of course, has a habit of overtaking you. More than overtaking you, actually – trouncing you on the dramatic Richter scale.
Four years ago, in the month Obama was re-elected President, I was lucky enough to have a play open at the National Theatre. Four years later, in the month Donald Trump won the right to replace him, This House is being revived in the West End. And without living up to the hand-wringing writer clichés – yes, I have been asking angsty questions about what a play written for a different political time will feel like, and “say” about, the new one we’re entering now. Post-Brexit, post-Trump and pre-God knows what else. All without the moral and spiritual crutches of David Bowie or Leonard Cohen to guide us.
The truth is – it doesn’t matter what I think. Audiences will do the work for you, and you can’t control that, and nor should you, and that’s what’s so brilliant and vital about theatre’s potential in tumultuous times. It’s actually a liberating thing for a writer to learn, a thing we pretend to ourselves isn’t true but almost certainly is: You can’t always control what your play is “about.”
The day after the referendum, Michelle Terry, at the time playing Henry V in London’s Regent’s Park, became resigned to the fact that this 400-year-old bit of writing was now a Brexit play, and everything she said or did would be viewed through that prism. Glenda Jackson’s Lear, screaming at the wind, is now probably almost certainly expressing the authoritarian rage of Donald Trump, definitely, maybe.
Chaos among the Establishment
I’m obviously not comparing my play to those. Although we do have Phil Daniels singing David Bowie. Which is quite cool. Ostensibly our show is “about” the rival Labour and Conservative Whips’ offices during the hung parliament of the 1970s – a period described by those I interviewed as the most chaotic in modern parliamentary history. The period has acquired a kind of mythic status. Labour, a minority government, required every flesh-and-blood MP they had at every single vote. But this was the war generation, now on their last legs. It created the farcical and shocking sight of ambulances lining up outside Parliament every evening for votes, with the weakest and even unconscious being “nodded through,” once their vital signs had been checked (not kidding).
This tension between sides got so bad that “the usual channels” – an ancient unwritten convention where opponents work together to allow the orderly passage of business – was suspended. Parliament and Britain were at a standstill. In the end (spoiler alert), something had to give. Margaret Thatcher swept to power. The rest is a history play.
When we began re-rehearsing over the summer, the feeling in the room was that, despite not having rewritten a word, our show had shifted from a look at compromise in a building designed for hostility, into one – unsurprisingly – about British identity. Not just because the 1974-79 parliament gifted us such parallels: the first European and first Scottish referendum. But because then, as now, we were clearly engaged in one of those existential crises the British like having at regular intervals. Who are we? Who do we want to be, and who do we want to be it with? Questions asked, but not answered, not really. Buried, for a later generation to unearth.
By the time we opened in Chichester this autumn, the audiences seemed to connect it with the crisis in the Labour party. Again, the comparisons with the 70s draw themselves – a party at an ideological crossroads. Reg Prentice, the member for Newham North East facing deselection (a term, when I first wrote it, I thought had been consigned to academic history) by the “militant left” who had infiltrated his local party. And Audrey Wise, the infamous member for Coventry South West, debating with the whips what’s more important – electability, or integrity?
The end of an era
Now, days before we roll into the West End, it feels to me this period in our history – and de facto the play too – is about something else entirely. I think it might just be about that purgatorial gap between one political orthodoxy ending, and another beginning.
In both 1979 and 2016, an idea was dying. Both ideas lived roughly 25 to 30 years. Perhaps that’s the lifespan of an idea. In the 70s of the This House, it was the last gasps of the post-war consensus, where two competing narratives of socialism and free enterprise cohabited side by side; a mixed economy of public and private, a baton of moderation swapped between parties at elections.
But cohabitation was soon replaced by an impasse, nothing was moving anymore and people were angry. And so one of the competing narratives had to win over the other. Neoliberalism it was. In the years after Thatcher and Reagan began their work, the Berlin Wall came down – a symbol that two competing ideas had become one. Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History, signalling that we were done, we’d found it. This is was what our human story was “about.”
And so it’s a satisfying if terrifying irony that the exact anniversary of the Berlin Wall falling – 9 November – is the day that Donald J. Trump was elected on the promise of rebuilding the walls of the world once more. Funny how it usually ends with bricks. Rising up, coming down, or very often being thrown. Either way, Neoliberalism is dead, buried, over, hasn’t worked. Try again. But what?
Anyway. Now I think that’s what the knockabout chaos of This House represents. The confusion and disarray that occurs between people at a crossroads. One hand about to let go of one branch but the other yet to find purchase on the next. The way we behave and treat one another when we think we’re about to fall.
Interpreting what art is about never ends, just as history doesn’t either. It seems nothing is guaranteed to stay certain, to last, any more. Except Bowie, of course. That much I am sure of. This House is at the Garrick Theatre, London to 25 February 2017
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.