In the current feverish atmosphere at Westminster, the time is right once more for political theatre about serious issues, so a cautious welcome should be given to Simon Woods's debut play Hansard (NT's Lyttelton auditorium), but this satire on late-Eighties Toryism feels glib, though it eventually becomes something more interesting.
It's 1988. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister and Princess Di is still alive. Tory MP Robin Hesketh, educated at Eton and Oxford, returns home to spend the weekend with his wife Diana. It's evident that things are strained between them. She suspects him of having an affair, and he thinks she drinks too much.
Robin calmly defends Thatcher's policies: mining was an industry in decline before she got her hands on it, he says. He is also promoting Section 28 of the Local Government Act which forbade the teaching of "the acceptability of homosexuality in schools", believing that this notorious anti-gay legislation was a way of shielding young people. Diana decries him and his entitled, privately educated class. Left leaning, she continually asks her husband to justify his political stance. But theirs remains a sedately dysfunctional relationship. Their bitter and frustrated relationship appears to be nourished by cat and mouse games as they hurl insults at each other and volley them back and forth and in the course of their poisonous disputes, long held secrets are revealed.
As we grow weary of their verbal sparring, there is a late revelation and what finally bursts through is startling and emotionally affecting and raises the intensity up several notches, but it only partly redeems what has gone before.
Here actor-turned playwright Simon Woods uses their marriage as a lens through which to explore the Tory mindset of the time–and by extension our time. However this is a play that is hard to warm to. The writing is superficially witty but so loaded with hindsight, it threatens to topple over. There are digs at identity politics, as well as the obligatory allusions to Brexit.
Hildegard Bechtler's comfortable Cotswolds setting is suitably realistic with a well-stocked drinks cabinet, chairs, table and sofa.
The production is elevated by Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan as the warring couple, both on beady, withering form. Jennings exudes a cool charm with masses of confidence, while also displaying the clumsiness of privilege, scarcely able to hide his guilt–what has he got to hide? Similarly Duncan begins the play with a strong element of irony, giving voice to a kind of exasperated pessimism, but slowly her vulnerability comes to the fore. While Robin sees Hansard (the written record of Parliamentary business) as basically his small contribution to history, Diana brings her own alternative record: an incriminating diary.
You could say this play is a mix of private feelings and public ideas.
Runs until November 25.
Box office: 020m7452 3000.Last modified: April 6, 2021