James Morrison on

Gethsemane
by David Hare
Directed by Howard Davies

Hare's Stalking Tortoise

From time to time during the two-and-a-half hours of David Hare’s latest dissection of the corpse of New Labour, his scalpel almost draws fresh blood.

The play’s biblical title - an allusion to the garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem in which Jesus fleetingly contemplated ducking out of martyring himself for the sake of humanity – might have worked well a decade ago, when it was only just dawning on Blair’s apologists on the Left that his modest 1997 election pledges really were as revolutionary as things were going to get. If this tin-pot messiah ever had harboured a genuine desire for social justice – somewhere in the depths of the mindset that had first induced him to join the Labour Party – he had long since sacrificed it on the altar of political cowardice and opportunism in his own private Gethsemane moment.

Today, nearly 13 unlucky years after Blair’s first landslide, Hare’s laboured metaphor for the choice between doing the right thing and taking the easy way out seems old-hat, and ever so slightly naïve. Leaving aside the fact that the notion of Labour ‘selling out’ is now so widely recognised (even among its political opponents) as to almost qualify as historical record, much of the play’s dialogue suggests Hare still clings to the outmoded idea that Blair’s soulless parade of managerial ministers believed in something in the first place.

As with several of Hare’s previous plays, Gethsemane opens with a short monologue from the character who is to become its narrator – in this case, an idealistic schoolteacher, who turns out to be unequivocally its most virtuous protagonist. After her enigmatic introduction (which hints at more sinister undercurrents than are ever subsequently explored), we are quickly plunged into familiar territory. The first scene proper opens with a sweaty-palmed suit awaiting his audience with an initially unspecified host. Is he an aspiring special advisor or private secretary about to be grilled by an interview panel, or to be ushered into his first meeting with the prime minister? No, in a promisingly naff twist, he is sprung on by corpulent, pony-tailed pop impresario Otto Fallon – a ‘new-moneyed, up-by-his-bootstraps grotesque' played with relish by Stanley Townsend. The former (husband, as it transpires, of the aforementioned teacher) has been headhunted to join Fallon’s consultancy, a firm whose business model appears to be predicated on nothing more substantial than road-testing new canapés at Labour corporate fund-raisers. So far, so Derek Draper.

Elsewhere, careerist Home Secretary Meredith Guest (Tamsin Greig) is busy blasting her sullen teenage daughter over her cannabis habit. From here we are taken on a frequently cartoonish and occasionally soapy series of backstairs encounters
in the corridors of power, the highlight of which is an amusing but rather laboured (pardon the pun) row between Guest and the PM in his Downing Street gym-cum-playroom (replete with drum-kit and dumbbells).
 
Gethsemane has its moments. Admittedly, there is something unnervingly prescient about the inclusion of a (female) Home Secretary struggling to contain a potentially explosive family scandal – albeit not, on this occasion, her husband’s predilection for porn. But beyond this, what does the play have to say that hasn’t already been said (not least by Hare himself) so many times before?

In fact, the whole play has a simplistic heavy-handedness about it that would be more in the work of a playwright infinitely less experienced than Hare, whose earlier works (The Absence of War in particular) were masterpieces of nuanced characterisation. It’s not enough for Guest to be a bland career politician – she has to be a closet idealist who is suffering an (ultimately under-explored) crisis of conscience. If only this were true of our real-life political masters. Surely if we’ve learnt one thing about the ‘Blair generation’ over the past decade or so it’s how very few of them appear to have ever harboured anything approaching socialist ideals. For the most part, the story of the Blair years isn’t one of idealism corrupted: it’s of ideology-free zones swaying unsteadily from one empty, focus group-led initiative to another.

Then there’s the fact that said minister’s errant daughter attends a fee-paying school. This is far too unsubtle: as Hare well knows, even the most ardent Blairite ministers have balked at hypocrisy as brazen as this. It was enough to briefly set the backbenches alight when it emerged, shortly after his election to the Labour leadership, that the great man himself had a son at grant-maintained school (ditto current deputy leader Harriet Harman, who even sent one of hers to a grammar). By plastering on the ‘state versus private’ anti-privilege message in such bold primary colours, Hare ducks making the point about Labour’s more insidious betrayals: its U-turn over allowing comprehensives to opt out of local authority control, and the willingness of supposedly left-wing ministers to publicly condemn academic selection while privately sending their own precious offspring to selective schools.
 
In terms of timing, Gethsemane ultimately falls between two stools. Ten years ago, when people were only just beginning to see through the emperor’s new clothes, it might have packed a punch. Sometime in the future, when Gordon Brown has also long gone, elements of it may seem fresh again. With a bit of revision, it may even have something lasting to say about this peculiarly cosmetic political age. For now, like New Labour itself, it just seems stale.

James Morrison © 2009