Hansard at the National Theatre
Much will be made of the topicality of Hansard. On the surface, it seems like a choice bit of programming by the National Theatre: a play about a Tory MP and his left-wing wife in a week that has seen the country offering up another iteration of its multi-year political meltdown.
However, there is something rather glib about Simon Woods’s approach. As the honourable Robin Hesketh (Alex Jennings) and his wife Diana (Lindsay Duncan) snipe at each other with the accuracy of the SAS, they cover a litany of subjects, including identity politics, the uselessness of the British public, the manipulation of the media, the preying on fear and the core tenets of conservatism versus liberalism. On paper, that’s a meaty theatrical meal. Yet each topic is dealt with by pithy punchline and not much else, offering up the illusion of commentary instead of the real deal.
When Jennings and Duncan first get to engage in their toxic patter it’s all very fun. These are two old sparring partners repeating well-oiled resentments, so familiar the sting has long since diminished. And then the conversation begins to diverge from the normal routine, that deadly substance – sincere emotion – starting to break through their straitjackets of English repression. Here the pair aren’t as good; something doesn’t quite click, a lack of genuine feeling that might be related to the premise.
The way the play uses Section 28 – it is set in 1988, the week the amendment was enacted – comes across as quite cynical. It is gradually revealed that the Heskeths have a reason to be personally invested in this nasty piece of politics. But rather than a proper investigation into the destruction caused by that act of governmental homophobia, it ends up merely providing a tidy historical backdrop to the play’s “twist”, as well as another notch in the couple’s culture war.
For a decent chunk of the running time, Simon Godwin directs as if it’s a multi-camera sitcom – the kind of winking, audience-aware style that is just plain smug, especially in front of the type of crowd such a piece attracts. This flippancy also makes the eventual right turn into drama sit uneasily, contributing to the sense of an evening that, while fairly enjoyable, is inessential – though it clearly thinks otherwise.
Photo: Catherine Ashmore
Hansard is at the National Theatre from 22nd August until 25th November 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.