The opposing benches in the House of Commons are placed at a calculated distance of exactly two swords’ lengths apart; it is an arena which was, from the very first, built with confrontation in mind. It is also an arena which, conveniently for the purposes of theatre, is no stranger to performance. The focus of James Graham’s new play, however, peels back the overtly theatrical space of ministerial speechifying to take a peek backstage, at the applying of the warpaint and the cracking of the whip.
His subject is a chapter of parliamentary history in which that largely invisible behind-the-scenes discipline was pivotal. The phrase “you couldn’t make it up” – avoided by Graham’s script but ever implicitly present in the farcical political wranglings presented on stage – is arguably more applicable to the parliament of 1974-9 than to any other period in recent political history. With little to no majority, Labour’s precarious position of governing rested on a “tug of war”, determined by who could exert the strongest pull on the “odds and sods” and the wavering backbenchers.
Placed in the heart of this parliamentary battlefield, Jeremy Herrin’s production constructs a compromised version of immersiveness, in which the audience are decidedly located within the sphere of the Commons but at a remove from its machinations. We are privileged observers, but never actors – a lack of agency that forms a fitting reflection of the average citizen’s place at the sidelines of politics. Rae Smith’s design has transformed the Cottesloe into parliament in miniature; the stage is flanked by those familiar, aggressively arranged benches, while the performance space itself is sharply divided into the government and opposition whips’ offices, the scene of scheming, dealing and ruthless backstage manoeuvring. No consensus politics here.
While the padded green benches on which we sit and the near-constant presence of the bewigged Speaker provide the perpetual visual backdrop of the Commons, the power games and posturing at play here might just as easily be taking place in the office or the schoolyard. This latter reference is brought to mind by the blackboard that haunts the government whips’ office, its chalked up political allegiances like marks against Labour’s governing. The schoolboy atmosphere of insecurities and one-upmanship extends into the spiritedly boisterous performances of the largely male cast, dominated by rival deputy whips Philip Glenister and Charles Edwards, who clog the air of both offices with frustrated testosterone.
As fascinating as this bizarre slice of politics is, the production seems also to be engaged with wider concerns. Primarily through the rivalry between Glenister’s and Edwards’ characters, Graham suggests that human nature is both the downfall and the triumph of politics, what gets in its way and what propels it forwards. It is an intriguing idea, but one that is not quite given room to be fully unpacked amid everything else at play. What This House does achieve with smiling clarity is a precise portrait of the foibles of the British political system, a system encumbered with idiosyncratic traditions and described as “creaking” and “diseased”, but a system that is at the same time implicitly compared with the giant clock in whose shadow the seat of power lies; both old, but still ticking away.
While Graham has delicately patched together an intricate and frequently compelling account of this curious caesura in twentieth-century politics, the complexities of these slippery deals and the very nature of the parliamentary stalemate that is its subject form something of a barrier. In the words of one frustrated MP, “this isn’t parliament, it’s a fucking purgatory”. Though at the end of the impasse, as Margaret Thatcher’s disembodied promise of “hope” echoes around the Cottesloe, this production makes it hard not to feel that this state of limbo might have been better than what was to follow.