As David Hare’s political drama The Absence of War opens in Sheffield, Theatre Correspondent Nick Ahad examines its continuing resonance.
THE LAST time the work of David Hare was at Sheffield it was a thrilling prospect. It was 2011 and the most engaged and political of playwrights had his work put under a microscope as he was celebrated with a whole season of his plays staged at the three Sheffield theatres.
Racing Demon, Plenty and The Breath of Life were the three brilliantly produced plays that formed the spine of the David Hare season, with several ancillary events around the season.
Somehow there is even more potency in and anticipation for a piece of his work which is returning to the city this year.
The sense of anticipation owes much to the fact that it is an election year and there is no better time to engage with the work of such a political writer than when politics is at the forefront of people’s minds and newspaper front pages. And while all his work is political, perhaps there is no more appropriate play for the Sheffield stage to host this year than The Absence of War.
Occupying territory between The West Wing and The Thick of It, this searing election play is a study of the epic personal struggle of one man and his party’s campaign to lead the country. Debuted at the National Theatre in 1993, the play was inspired by David Hare’s first hand observations of the 1992 General Election during which he had behind-the-scenes access.
Hare attended Labour rallies and press conferences, as well as private meetings involving Neil Kinnock and, among others, Shadow Home Secretary Roy Hattersley, Shadow Foreign Secretary Gerald Kaufman and Patricia Hewitt.
The play is being brought to Sheffield by a three-way partnership between Sheffield Theatres, Headlong theatre company and Rose Theatre Kingston and is being directed by Headlong’s artistic director Jeremy Herrin.
While the three companies are involved, Herrin insists this was always going to be a Yorkshire-first production.
“The conversations about staging it started in Sheffield and in the play George is resolutely a Yorkshireman,” says Herrin.
Hare’s play tells the story of George Jones, the charismatic leader of the Labour Party, who is at a crucial point in his career. Desperate to get out of opposition and into Number Ten, he has three weeks to convince the Great British Public that he’s their man. Plagued by a hostile media, beset by divisions in his party and haunted by his own demons, it seems the road to power is a rocky one.
How much compromise is he prepared to make? How can he appeal to the man in the street from the House of Commons? And which tie should he wear for Prime Minister’s Questions?
“He makes a quite clear decision about what he has to do,” says Herrin. “Examining the play it seems to distill into the fundamental question of what sort of honesty it is possible to have in this system.”
Herrin is palpably excited to be bringing Hare’s coruscating political views to the stage in an election year. When we spoke, at the turn of 2015, he was expecting the show to have a deep resonance by the time it hit the stage of the Crucible, this month.
“With less than 100 days to go, the politicians will be like prizefighters, so to see what the play has to say about the time will be fascinating.
“I think that’s one of the incredible things about the play – that it seems to be able to speak to whatever is happening in the political landscape, no matter how that is changing.”
Although premiered over two decades ago, unsurprisingly, Hare’s work has the quality of most good theatre writing – it remains relevant even taken out of its timeframe.
“We’ve made a couple of cuts, but nothing substantial at all,” says Herrin.
“It’s been a filleting process rather than cutting anything really. It’s extraordinary really, but what he wrote back then is absolutely still relevant today.
“The script is lean and pacy and it’s also not an exhausting thing to watch. It has jokes. Of course the drama is high and it feels like a weighty piece of work, but it is an intensely likeable piece of theatre. I think seeing this will be a really satisfying experience.”
Bringing the piece to life in Sheffield is an impressive cast.
Reece Dinsdale, fresh from playing Alan Bennett in an award-winning role in Untold Stories at West Yorkshire Playhouse last year, will take the role of George Jones. Cyril Nri, who is currently starring in Russell T Davies’ new Channel 4 series Cucumber, will play Oliver Dix.
Herrin, who recently directed the stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, says: “It genuinely is a brilliant cast – and it needs to be to do justice to such a brilliantly written play.”
• The Absence of War, Sheffield Crucible, February 6-21. Tickets 0114 2496000.