Reviews Bristol Published 17 March 2015

The Absence of War

Bristol Old Vic ⋄ 10th - 14th March 2015 (touring until 8th May 2015)

On the British Campaign Trail.

Rosemary Waugh
Labour, circa 1992. Credit: Mark Douet

Labour, circa 1992. Credit: Mark Douet

“Some of the scenes in this book will not make much sense to anybody except the people who were involved in them. Politics has its own language, which is often so complex that it borders on being a code, and the main trick in political journalism is learning how to translate – to make sense of the partisan bullshit even your friends will lay on you – without crippling your access to the kind of information that allows you to keep functioning.”– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is not a book about politics per se, it is specifically a book about American politics. Thompson’s version of writing, the sleep-deprived rabid testimony, is only suited to the style and glitz of the American political wagon-ride across the huge United States towards Washington. Transport his journey and dispatches to the UK and it makes no sense. American politics rolls in to town in a way that British politics does not. I once caught (and subsequently shook the hand of) Charles Kennedy making his way through the Lib Dem town of Taunton, followed by a strange and straggly group of about 20 people waving yellow balloons. Even in this tough-fought area between Lib Dem and Tory, pretty much no one other than the balloon-wavers batted an eyelid or asked a question as he made his way through the centre of town on a busy weekday afternoon. British politics – let’s make that English politics, because Scotland recently succeeded in getting people out and voting in a way we never do south of the border – is boring.

On the eve of Obama’s first election to the presidency, certain UK citizens participated in phoning their US counterparts and tried to convince them to not only vote but to vote Democrat. This angered those in America who felt it was none of any nation’s business whom they voted for. An irritating phone call from a limey is perhaps the price one simply has to pay for being part of the nation headed by the Leader of the Free World, or whatever, but is also the unfortunate result of the sheer attraction of American politics. Their system galvanises people in other nations to get on the phone. Our system doesn’t even get our own people out and down to a sodding voting booth on their own street corner.

However, as Thompson notes with American politics, all systems – including Britain’s – have their own special code and language. Sometimes this is the lexicon which comes to represent an era, such as with New Labour and Cool Britannia. Alternatively, it is the actual language certain politicians use. The Times recently de-coded the spoken language of David Cameron, the nonchalant blend of pseudo-camp vocabulary that favours adding suffixes such as ‘-arooney’ to the ends of otherwise perfectly fine words. Cameron’s language literally bespeaks of an Etonian schooling and a familiarity with elite, Smithsonian handbag-carrying South Easterners that many use to explain any perceived slight towards the poor and disadvantaged. Although I do not agree politically, I quite like Cameron’s posho-vocab, mainly because it adds a degree of interest to the utterly banal jargon-filled discourse that usually emanates out of the political arena.

And here we get to the actual play, The Absence of War (if you are still reading thus far), which was written on 1993 by David Hare and is being revived by Jeremy Herrin and Headlong. After a delay due to the illness of Reece Dinsdale playing George Jones and his replacement by Trevor Fox, I saw this performance of their Bristol leg of the tour on Friday 13th. With a flu-ridden main cast member, this production had already suffered its fair share of bad luck but, in Trevor Fox’s solid and melancholy performance particularly, it overcome it well.

Hare’s play strikes for realism and the rest of the cast members – especially James Harkness as Andrew Buchan and Ameira Darwish as Mary Housego – play their characters with precision. The setting is beautifully slick, but the over-all effect is almost too realistic. The lines are too like the lines real people in politics trot out on autopilot and the plot itself reads like a metaphor for the real world of politics: there’s an inevitable ending viewers can see coming from the beginning and a lack of self-reflection or message throughout the election campaign. The timing of this production promised a commentary on the current Labour campaign for 10 Downing Street, but it fails to deliver anything other than the impression that many of their attempts at re-branding fall cringingly short – whether that is in painting a bus pink for the ladies or inviting the Spice Girls to tea.

The promised moment of transformation in the play comes with the arrival of Lindsay Fontaine (Charlotte Lucas) who enters as a guru-figure, the maverick with wacky ideas about getting rid of constricting scripts for George’s speeches. Following this, the man himself takes to the podium and…and…fails. His previous oratory ability does not resurface in the shape of any ‘YES WE CAN’ moment of political rousing instead he fluffs it. Just like the time Ed Miliband went without a teleprompter at the Labour Conference and promptly forgot a whole section on the economy.

If Hare’s point was to highlight embarrassing ineptitudes and banalities in Britain’s political figures and system (in the 1990s but equally applicable now), then this play was a great success. But the downside of this type of success is that, exactly like with the political playground itself, it does not always make for great viewing. American politics itself contains enough theatre to be captivating, while British politics, even when placed within an actual theatre, does not.


Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

The Absence of War Show Info

Produced by Headlong, Rose Theatre, Kingston and Sheffield Theatres

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Written by David Hare

Cast includes Trevor Fox, James Harkness, Ameira Darwish, Charlotte Lucas, Ekow Quartey, Maggie McCarthy, Cyril Nri




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