There is a particular thrill in seeing a new play in the hands of two consummate professional actors, and Simon Woods Hansard at the South Bank delivers just that, writes Christopher Walker.
It is a political play – at moments too political, heavens knows most of us have had enough of politics at the moment.
But as it gathers pace, in the hands of Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan, the work takes flight. It is well worth seeing.
Simon Woods is a new writer, and this is his first play on the London stage. But he is certainly not new to drama. His face is familiar to Jane Austen fans as Charles Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, and to television viewers as the young Octavian in Rome.
You might expect an actor-turned-writer to go easy on his performers, but no chance. This two-hander, whilst only being 1hr 20mins long, is quite gruelling for them, and us.
Brexit has split our nation in two, and seems to dominate all conversations at present.
The last three years have left most of us gasping for air, so it was with real trepidation that I approached anything with a title like Hansard (the official record of Parliamentary proceedings).
The action is set back in the 1980s, and concerns two people, one a Tory minister, the other his left-wing wife, trapped in seemingly endless, gin-fuelled, warfare.
As such, the first half hour feels all too real. The couple sound very much like the UK at present – two halves of one team at each other’s throats.
The audience even seems to naturally divide. One half laughing at the jibes at the Guardian, the other at the portrayed incompetence of the Tory party.
Alex Jennings is outstanding as Tory MP Robin Hesketh. Alex is one of those actors who just gets better with age (he’s over 60 now), and he has become very famous recently thanks to two big TV roles – Uncle Leopold in Victoria and the Duke of Windsor in The Crown. Here he is quite perfect playing Hesketh.
He handles the humour in the script skilfully, as well as the emotion that is demanded of him later. It is a superb performance.
His wife, maybe I should say his opponent, Diana, is played by the equally talented Lindsay Duncan.
Diana stumbles around the stage half drunk, and totally disenchanted.
The couple seem so different politically it is at times hard to imagine them ever getting married. Although Woods gives us some back story to make this (almost) seem plausible.
Here we see them at their Cotswolds House c.1988 (perfectly represented by designer Hildegard Bechtler). Hesketh has come down for the weekend to join his wife.
The business of the play concerns the ill-judged move by the Thatcher Government to introduce Clause 28, outlawing the positive portrayal of gay relationships.
Some of the usual pro and anti-Thatcher arguments are rehearsed. However, a lot of the language and debates have a very contemporary resonance – such as Diana’s riling against old Etonians messing up the country. Woods is of course an old Etonian himself.
Fortunately, we escape this political bickering as we start to see what underlies the tension between this warring couple.
This is where Woods’ writing takes off. With a little tightening, this play could be a British Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
A couple’s battle that says an awful lot not just about them but about the society in which they live.
This piece encourages us to stop and consider what emotional depths may lie beneath our opponent’s views, and whether we might find more in common than we think. A balm for our times.
Hansard plays at the Lyttelton Theatre, South Bank SE1 until November 25
www.nationaltheatre.org.uk Box office 0207 452 3000.
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