With a growing sense of apathy, cynicism and general angst sweeping the nation in regards to current politics, as well as the media build-up surrounding the 2015 general election, David Hare’s The Absence of War has never been more topical.
I confess to not being an avid follower of contemporary politics, I don’t know what party I will vote for and I’m too young to remember the year in which Hare’s play is set, therefore, Headlong Theatre Company were unknowingly embarking on a difficult job in making me invest in a political drama. I went along to its opening night at Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre on Tuesday 17 March 2015 with an open, and somewhat ignorant, mind.
The Absence of War is based on the 1992 general elections and the Labour leader’s attempt to win over the general public in three weeks, with a team of marketing specialists, data analysts and shadow ministers telling him what he can, and more importantly, what he cannot say.
The play revolves around leadership – or a lack thereof – and the Labour party’s battle against the Tories, the media, and its own demons, with David Hare saying inspiration stemmed from ‘the question of why the Labour Party seems unable to articulate a programme in which it sounds as if it believes.’
The Everyman’s stage was stripped bare, and apart from a couple of television screens, a desk or two and a wreath of poppies, audiences were left to use their imaginations.
Headlong was, however, once again innovative in its use of technology, lighting and camerawork stretching off-stage to create a sense of space, alluding to the wider world, and making audiences feel as if they were confined to one room while the play reached further. This drew a neat parallel to the mindset of the protagonist and Labour leader, George Jones, who felt like he was trapped in a box, unable to say anything.
While Reece Dinsdale will play George for the remainder of the tour, due to an illness the role was played by the admirable Trevor Fox on the launch night. Given one day’s notice that he would be starring in this play, it was hard to believe he had not been practicing the character for months, as he projected the charisma, confidence and credibility that the fatally-flawed character, George, was based on.
While there was certainly a lot of information to take in, Hare’s play was easy to follow, fluently written, subtly humorous and sharply satirical, with a joke about Winston Churchill voting for the Tories from his grave causing a ripple of laughter through the audience.
Headlong’s use of sounds added to the intensity of the play, with recordings of white noise, the BBC News music and Big Ben’s chimes creating a sense of realism, and making the audience feel as though they were too sat in an overcrowded metropolitan office, brainstorming tirelessly about how to overcome the next media storm.
George’s character spoke of how he loved the theatre; he loved the drama, the big finales, the dramatic climaxes and how the tragic hero always gets killed. The Absence of War was a climax of different sorts, yet equally gripping. Following an intense play, the crux of the evening was eerily still, with not a single breath from the audience to be heard over the dialogue.
With the general elections looming, George’s words that he ‘cannot say anything’ are strangely echoed in the carefully articulated speeches that we see politicians give in the media today, and while this play is based in 1992, its sense of tragedy stems from its similarities and relatable scenes, reminding us that not a lot has changed.
As a self-confessed politically-ignorant theatre-goer, it takes a strong production to keep me interested, let alone invested, in a politically-driven story. Headlong did not fail to deliver in yet another triumph at the Everyman Theatre, with an innovative production and emotional performance that will certainly make me think twice before election day.
The Absence of War will be at Everyman Theatre until Saturday 21 March 2015. For more information about what’s coming up at Everyman Theatre call (01242) 572573, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit everymantheatre.org.uk directly.
By Alice Lloyd
Thursday 19 March 2015
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