Gethsemane @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Anthony Calf, Tamsin Greig, Jessica Raine, Stanley Townsend, Nicola Walker

directed by
Howard Davies
This is the second David Hare play to open in London this year, following on from The Vertical Hour at the Royal Court in January.

As always in Hare, the personal and the political collide, but whereas the previous play looked at post-9/11 American foreign policy, Gethsemane is a devastating dissection of the morally ambivalent connections between politics, business and the media in our own society.

The drama stems from the repercussions of Home Secretary Meredith Guest’s daughter Suzette being involved in a drugs incident at her private school.
Expulsion and public scandal are only avoided because governor Otto Fallon, an unscrupulous millionaire businessman who is also the ruling party’s chief fund raiser, offers to buy the school a gym.

However, the story is about to get out anyway because the disaffected Suzette has told all to a sleazy journalist she has slept with who is bent on exposing public corruption. Meanwhile Meredith, already under intense pressure due to her controversial immigration and anti-terrorism legislation, as well as the imminent fraud trial of her dodgy businessman husband, has brought in as a go-between her daughter’s ex-comprehensive-school teacher Lori Drysdale whose husband Mike has just started working for Otto.

In a programme note, Hare somewhat disingenuously writes: ‘The Permanent Way [his verbatim drama about the privatization of the railways] is pure fact, transcribed, Stuff Happens [his speculative behind-the-scenes account of the build-up to the Iraq War] is one-third transcribed. Gethsemane is pure fiction.’ Although unspecified, no one watching this play will be in any doubt that it is based on New Labour. There are tacit allusions to Jack Straw’s cannabis-smoking son, the murky business dealings of Tessa Jowell’s husband, Lord Levy and the cash for honours scandal not to mention a drum-playing prime minister who could be a stand-in for wannabe rock guitarist Tony Blair.

However, although the play may well feel like the disillusioned verdict on New Labour from a socialist playwright, and fun though it is to spot the references, Gethsemane goes much deeper than contemporary domestic politics. In a wide-ranging examination which also touches on faith, family and education, Hare reveals the real dangers to democracy posed by governing classes who have become so accustomed to distorting the truth in order to hold on to power that they no longer believe in anything. With business and the media also aggressively pursuing their own self-interests, even when allegedly for the public good, Hare illuminates how our democratic deficit springs from a credibility crisis.

Howard Davies’ well-balanced production shows clearly how individuals’ lives are caught up in public events. Bob Crowley’s gleaming white perspex design flexibly moves from office to home to squash court to gym, while the fast-moving projections of London’s cityscape from Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington give a strong impression of the vortex of contemporary urban living.

As the social conscience of the play, Nicola Walker lends Lori a tough idealism her ‘Gethsemane moment of doubt’ in giving up music teaching because of the increasing bureaucratization of education (though somewhat implausibly now busking on the tube) marks her out as a maverick in a conformist society. The misgivings of her weak husband Mike (Daniel Ryan) about working for Otto’s empire seem to come more from fear of displeasing her than genuine principle.

Stanley Townsend’s ponytailed Machiavellian Otto exudes all the arrogant assurance of a self-made man, who has risen from Hendon hairdresser to chairman of the Royal Opera House, while Pip Carter makes the most of his camp aide-de-camp’s arch comments. Tamsin Greig’s Meredith conveys real feeling in her divided loyalties between career and family, as she truly believes in her policies while wanting to heal the estranged relationship with Jessica Raine’s rebellious, neglected Suzette.

Anthony Calf’s cameo as the prime minister is a powerful portrait of a man who has lost touch with what he went into politics for, while Meredith’s spin-doctor fixer is given a ruthless efficiency by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and as a failed historian turned investigative journalist Adam James suggests a moral bankruptcy in his personal life.

With the characters delivering monologues between scenes revealing their own different perspectives, Gethsemane provides a fascinatingly multi-layered insight into how power is used and abused. Hare may be accused of writing cerebral plays that are more interested in political ideas than people’s emotions but when, through crisp and witty dialogue, the analysis is so dramatically incisive, who cares?

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