Twenty three years ago I saw the original production of The Absence of War as part of David Hare’s trilogy about the three great offices of state at the National Theatre. That trilogy was a major event- a bravura attempt to say something about the state of the nation on a grand scale, something that theatre rarely attempts. It is a play based on Neil Kinnock’s final election campaign- carefully researched by David Hare in great detail and then developed into a play which looks beyond that specific setting to find some home truths about politics in general. The chance to look back at it so long afterwards, with a general election campaign just underway is fascinating. It begs two questions; now that we have the benefit of hindsight did David Hare get it right and twenty three years later, have things changed?
The revival at Sheffield Crucible certainly gives the play the best chance it could possibly hope for. The space fits it better than the Olivier ever did. It is big enough to remind us that we are watching national events and intimate enough to draw us in and allow us to see the personal struggles involved. Some good decisions have been made, not least the decision to make George Jones the northerner I think he should always have been, and there are some fine touches in the staging. This play really needs a good director as personal events are taking place within a public setting which needs to be laid out for us and the action needs to move fast so that we feel the urgency of an election campaign. Jeremy Herrin has done an excellent job. I particularly loved the conference climax at the end of the first half and the clever use of live video.
Reece Dinsdale is really impressive as George. The crucial moment where he tries to articulate his socialist principles in front of an audience and falters- in spite of the fact that his beliefs are sincere and strongly held- was beautifully played and I enjoyed the scene where he is hijacked by a hostile interviewer and loses his temper. I like nothing better than seeing a small part played in a way that allows you to understand a character, even when given very little in the script to go on, and Helen Ryan did that in spades playing an elderly hard line socialist who is still very much in the game and ready to make waves if she is allowed to. Gyuri Sarossy was great as the shadow chancellor Malcolm. He is both loathsome and also completely understandable. He just wants to win and he knows that this will not happen with George as party leader. The confrontation in the aircraft factory where he and George finally have it out and covert hostility is allowed out into the open was perfectly done and drew a well deserved round of applause.
So did David Hare get it right and have things changed? In an age of political cynicism when the instant reaction to George’s final declaration is perhaps one of wry laughter rather than weary despair the play has certainly become a period piece. It says something about it’s own time which will always remain relevant and perceptive, but what really makes it stand the test of time is the way that it resonates with what we see in our political system today. When George talks about money being a simple master to serve, as everybody knows what it is and it is easy to evaluate, but that justice is far harder as nobody really agrees exactly what that is this says something universal. It was true then, it is true now and it probably always will be. That is fine writing. Telling the truth about society will always hit a nerve as people don’t change.