Absence of War

Review: The Absence of War, Headlong Theatre

Joshua Hackett reviews Headlong Theatre’s touring production of David Hare’s The Absence of War, directed by Jeremy Herrin. 

Set during the deathbed days of old Labour, The Absence of War follows party leader George Jones and his inner circle as they plot to overthrow a floundering Conservative government. Playwright David Hare was invited behind the scenes of the Labour party during their failed 1992 campaign, and while the characters are fictional, many elements of the play have real-world analogues.

Director Jeremy Herrin has crafted a highly visual production. Mock speeches, Prime Minister’s Questions and television interviews are richly portrayed and, arguably, the most vibrant parts of the play. It’s in these scenes that Reese Dinsdale is most convincing as George. The seamless integration of televisions and video footage into the stage design is masterful; as George gives speeches, we see his own image reflected back at us from a dozen screens. It’s a perfect visual metaphor for the media machine these characters dote upon.

The cold reflective floor, coloured backdrops and minimal stage furnishings give the impression of moments plucked straight from history. Going into the play with no knowledge of politics, you could be forgiven for thinking it depicts real people.

It’s also a rather timely production, in a way that is certainly deliberate. As Labour struggle to connect with voters ahead of May’s election, it’s not hard to imagine scenes being re-enacted among Ed Milliband’s advisors.

For an audience in 2015, there’s nostalgia to be found in the speeches. Mainstream political figures getting riled up about old-fashioned socialism and conservativism seems distinctly unlikely in today’s political landscape, where the key distinguishing trait of the three central parties seems to be tie colour. George’s “let’s all become Tories” line now sounds less like humour and more like prophecy.

There is more here than just politics. Hare has created a classic Aristotelian tragedy – a flawed hero with high hopes, an inevitable downfall and a moment of catharsis – it’s a tried and tested formula. It’s also imbued with a dry cynical humour that will be instantly accessible to fans of The Thick of It.

As the cast take their bows, Labour’s classic anthem ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ plays. It’s an appropriate note to end on, with Tony Blair having admitted that The Absence of War led him to pledge never to let what happened to George Jones happen to him.

Much has changed since 1992. We’ve lived through Alistair Campbell and an intervening generation of political satires, we’re all intimately familiar with the concept of spin and the delicate curation of our leaders is well-known. This is a talented retelling of David Hare’s work, but in 2015, the core message is old news.

For production details and upcoming tour dates, visit Headlong Theatre’s website

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