Let’s Talk Theater About Politics, Not Political Theater

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Helen Mirren in The Audience Photo by Johan Persson

While the argument that all theater is political remains pretty much indisputable, the contention that all theater is about politics continues less convincingly. Two current London productions-Peter Morgan’s The Audience at the Gielgud and James Graham’s This House at the National-carry on the English tradition, however, and it’s one that dates back at least to William Shakespeare’s riveting history plays.

What’s unmistakable is that the English audiences are eating the new entries up with the silver spoon only some of them were born with. At the same time, an American in the audience can’t help wondering why similar examinations of stateside government and politics are so few-or are, at the very least, perceived to be in such smaller quantity.

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Yes, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man does a bang-up job of skewering presidential conventions and Tony Kushner impressively weighs in with Angels in America. (His Lincoln screenplay is also right on the money.) I suppose A. R. Gurney’s plays on the subject-usually introed at the Flea-count, although some might wish they were better. Holland Taylor’s Ann recreates a day in the life of Texas governor Ann Richards, albeit without too much bite.

But why did it take Great Britain’s David Hare to compose Stuff Happens, which depicts George W. Bush’s administration tactics leading to the Iraq war 10 years ago this month and which the irascible playwright pointedly calls “a history play”? This is the same political columnist Hare whose resumé includes The Absence of War, The Power of Yes and Pravda (written with Howard Brenton, another politics junkie).

Helen Mirren in The Audience Photo by Johan Persson
Helen Mirren in The Audience
Photo by Johan Persson

Just something to think about when perusing the rest of this column about the Morgan and James works. Because the beloved Helen Mirren is once again portraying Elizabeth II (does anyone not know she landed the Oscar for The Queen, also by Morgan?), this is the more publicized of the two productions.

The title refers to the brief (20 minutes or so) weekly briefing the Monarch has with the incumbent prime minister. As the two acts go by, Mirren-once again doing a commendable impersonation-meets with several of the 12 MPs (no, not all and not in chronological order) who so far have served during her 61-year reign. Because the one-on-ones are strictly confidential and therefore no records are kept, Morgan has had to base them on what he knows of the participants and what he imagines they might have said.

That he succeeds so assuredly is a testament to his political and playwriting resources and savvy. Which isn’t to say The Audience is a great play. Those wanting to find its flaws will say that Morgan’s portrait of the Queen here-in contrast to the subtleties of his movie-concentrates on her command of national and international politics and is unquestionably flattering, not unlike the Bard’s finding ways to compliment his Elizabeth.

What this dossier of sketches does, though, is give the mesmerized spectators an insight into how the country is governed. Indeed, at the final fade-out, Elizabeth comments that anyone wanting to understand England mustn’t look to its monarchs but to its prime ministers.

Incidentally, in one of the David Cameron tete-a-tetes, he brazenly asks Her Majesty if she had a favorite prime minister. Though she refuses to respond, she later quizzes an equerry on whether the Buckingham Palace staff suspected she did favor one among the weekly visitors. He replies that labor leader Harold Wilson was the fellow, and in an earlier scene Wilson does kid Elizabeth about being a latent Labor party member, a ribbing she takes in with no feelings ruffled.

Others of the dozen PMs showing up (two more than worked with Queen Victoria) are Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Gordon Brown-Morgan obviously including the more recent figures on the basis of ticket-buyers’ familiarity.

Harold MacMillan is one who doesn’t take a seat opposite the Queen, and although it seems he’s now a forgotten man, for me he represents a lost opportunity in this connection. It was MacMillan who once told Dick Cavett that of all the men he knew who aspired to the position, not one landed there. As far as he could tell, everyone who did occupy 10 Downing Street got there by accident.

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This House Photo by Johan Persson
This House
Photo by Johan Persson

But if Morgan’s Elizabeth advises history lovers to look to the prime ministers, Graham points in another direction-at a group of men and (now) women whose names the English public hardly have on the tips of their tongues.

These virtually anonymous figures are the whips whose agitated behind-the-scenes machinations control how House of Parliament voting goes. Graham sets his drama during the 1970s when the conservative Edward Heath (MP from Bexley) was defeated in the national election and then follows through the Harold Wilson (MP from Huyton) and James Callaghan (MP from Cardiff South East) Labor Party, administrations until conservative Margaret Thatcher (MP from Finchley) wins in 1979.

(I specify the areas represented, because that’s how they’re identified in Graham’s script. Thatcher, for instance is not mentioned by name, only as “Finchley.”)

While the bewigged Speaker of the House serves as interlocutor but rarely take his prominent upstage seat, the best part of the action takes place in two downstage rooms (without walls). Those in power at the moment occupy the stage-right area and those representing the shadow government do so in the stage-left zone.

Amusingly enough, shifts in power are noted here by characters carrying boxes and potted plants from left to right and right to left. These occur only after numerous, often questionable political stratagems are practiced-the most controversial called “pairing,” which simply has to do with the gentleman’s agreement that if a member of one party is unavailable to vote, a member of the opposition party removes himself or herself.

The way in which the Labor party disregards pairing serves as one of Graham’s most inflammatory sequences. Another is the efforts made to get a dying MP to Parliament for a significant vote.

Throughout This House the audience is required to listen hard and fast. It does, and the result is that the reception at curtain call is adulatory. So much so that an American observer has to report that were The Audience and/or This House brought to these shores, the response simply wouldn’t be the same. (Apparently, Mirren wants to do The Audience on Broadway, where she hasn’t been since the 2001-2002 Dance of Death with Ian McKellen. The final performance of This House on May 16 will be broadcast worldwide.)

What would undoubtedly receive similar ovations are American plays that abandon the standard dysfunctional-family theme and stare as keenly at dysfunctional governing.