Reviews West End & Central Published 5 September 2019

Review: Hansard at National Theatre

Beat ’em up: Simon Gwynn writes on a pugnacious but uneven Tory party satire.

Simon Gwynn

‘Hansard’ at the National Theatre. Photo: Catherine Ashmore


*Hadouken!* Diana Hesketh (Lindsay Duncan) thrusts her open palms forwards and a ball of glowing blue plasma blasts across the stage, smacking into her husband Robin (Alex Jennings), lifting him off his feet and knocking him backwards onto the floor, while uttering a barbed quip about “the insatiable desire of the people of this country to be fucked by an Old Etonian.” But he’s back on his feet – in fact, he’s floating horizontally across the stage at lightning speed before delivering a helicopter kick to her head, while throwing out something simply devastating about how the Labour party keeps choosing such bloody awful leaders!

That is the production I wish this had been. Hildegard Bechtler’s wonderfully detailed set, depicting the interior of a large rural home in the 1980s, leaves a performance space that is wide but rather shallow. It calls to mind a fighting arena in a beat ‘em up game, and I can’t help envisaging its protagonists Robin and Diana – who are often located at either end of the Lyttleton theatre’s large stage – as Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat characters, living for the thrill of the fight. How to actually bring this parallel to life, I’m not sure; but the National has big budgets and access to lots of creative people, so they ought to be able to figure it out.

In reality, Hansard, the first play by actor Simon Woods, is highly traditional and minimal in all aspects other than the lush set, designed by Hildegard Bechtler. The first half consists in large part of verbal smackdowns between the unhappily married couple. It’s 1988 and he’s a loyalist Tory MP, cut from the traditional cloth, coming home to his Cotswold constituency for the weekend after a hard week of oppressing the disadvantaged. She’s the depressed and dissatisfied wife who turns to booze to help the days pass while speculating about which junior floozy hubby is bonking in London.

The writing can be a lot of fun, thanks to the spicy delivery of both actors, but it gets pretty corny in places; there are a handful of jokes right out of ‘The Essential Guide to Breaking the Fourth Wall’, with the low point being Robin’s tirade against theatre goers, which the audience bloody loves, of course (haha! It’s funny because it’s YOU!)

It’s clear all along that Diana has something planned; we know she’s been spying on him, thinks he’s having an affair, is furious about his recent support for the homophobic Section 28 (which banned local authorities and schools from ‘promoting’ homosexuality), and is determined to make him sit and watch an old home movie it is implied will reveal the darkness at the core of his soul. (Eventually they do, and it does, though not in the way we expect.) Sure enough, the play makes quite a drastic swerve in tone when Robin can no longer duck and dive around Diana’s efforts to force the confrontation. There is very little time left, because their friends the Scotts (who we can only assume are upstanding community Tories) are due round for lunch at any minute.

The revelations that emerge about a tragedy in the couple’s past, which entirely shaped their marriage as it is today, are heartbreakingly powerful. The script lays out the truth at a rapid pace, which offers an almighty challenge for the acting chops of Duncan and Jennings, but they just about pull it off. Some viewers are likely to feel the ending is rushed, but the artificial time constraint makes sense within the narrative established by Woods, and anyway, who wants to sit through hours of characters wallowing in misery?

This press performance took place on the same evening Boris Johnson was defeated by MPs who voted to block a no-deal Brexit (*Hadouken!*) and this lends the subject an irresistible air of topicality. Robin is the archetypal Tory swine, the kind those of us of a certain persuasion have grown to despise more than ever in recent months.

For most of Hansard, Robin is painted as a cartoon villain; very late on, we discover he is complex, somewhat sympathetic, a victim of social forces as well as a perpetrator – but no time is given to really delve into this. You could look at this as evidence of weak writing, but I think it carries a message. Yes, men like Robin are human beings. Yes, they also suffer as a result of toxic masculinity. I’m sure Jacob Rees-Mogg dearly loves little Sixtus Dominic Boniface Christopher and Anselm Charles Fitzwilliam, even as he considers it beneath himself to engage in basic childcare. There is always value in humanising people, regardless of their wrongs. But even if the damage they do comes from emotional and intellectual cowardice, which seems to be the case with Robin, it is still real and significant. In the end, it’s the cartoon villainy that really counts.

Hansard is on at the National Theatre until 25th November. More info and tickets here

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Simon Gwynn is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Hansard at National Theatre Show Info


Directed by Simon Godwin

Written by Simon Woods

Cast includes Lindsay Duncan, Alex Jennings

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