The Absence of War

David Hare
Headlong
Liverpool Playhouse

Gyuri Sarossy as Malcolm Pryce, Reece Dinsdale as George Jones, Barry McCarthy as Bryden Thomas Credit: Mark Douet

David Hare’s cautionary political drama The Absence of War might have been more appropriately called ‘The Party’s Over’, because, watching this investigation of Labour Party morality and ethics, one can’t help but feel that this once great party—the real Labour party—is all but extinct. Kaput. Broken.

It’s general election year and perhaps it should come as no surprise that both the cultural and political worlds are looking to the past for signs and signals, searching for resonance.

Originally staged in the early nineties, Hare’s play was a searing attack on a party and its ineffectual leader, Neil Kinnock. Now it’s back, and it’s lost none of its sting. Are not we supposed to learn from our past mistakes, learn from the history books asks—nay, implores—the playwright?

‘Timely’ is the word usually bandied around at such moments. That may be true. Exchange Kinnock for Miliband and we may not indeed be any further forward than we were in 1992. That’s one for the political commentators. The message or more precisely messages are patently clear. Of more pressing concern are this production’s dramatic qualities.

Headlong certainly approaches this play with characteristic pizzazz. Jeremy Herrin’s direction is crisp as are the stage transitions: one moment we are in the hushed studios of telly land, the next in the somewhat more boisterous confines of the House of Commons, at one juncture we even find ourselves whisked away to the Cenotaph—wreathes and all.

The pace is strong, transitions slick. They need to be. Liverpool’s Playhouse stage is transformed into a twenty-four hour media den of breaking news stories, rumours and soundbites. There’s a heck of a lot happening on this stage.

And there are certainly a lot of ideas floating around here too, not least of which is the recurrent theme of a political landscape bereft of integrity. Hare’s Labour Party is one populated by the celebrated ‘political advisors’—that band of sharply-dressed university graduates who would sell their own grandmothers for their next knee-up on the greasy pole. Plenty then to ponder over.

Also under scrutiny is the lack of conviction discerned by some in modern politics. The present political generation comes across as opportunists, charlatans, people who follow the crowd in preference to their consciences. Elder statesmen and women—those upon whom the party built its foundations—are viewed as nothing more than quaint by the modern focus group-obsessed generation. For pre-media read prehistoric.

Hare chooses to dramatise his concerns—of which there are many—chiefly in the form of Labour leader George Jones (Reece Dinsdale). Jones, a no-nonsense Yorkshireman and former firebrand of the left, has become, when we encounter him, a virtual speechwriters’ puppet. His is a belly seemingly short on fire. Dinsdale portrays a careworn leader of the opposition, one torn between the old and the new—and one certainly not wholly immune to the flattery of spin.

Interestingly, the role of Jones was originally played by the late John Thaw—Dinsdale’s television father in the situation comedy Home to Roost. The baton is certainly safe on this evidence.

Every political career inevitably ends in failure, so they say. George Jones is no exception. As the play moves towards the inevitable defeat of the Labour Party, there is an impossible question to face for the George Jones of this world: power, but at what price?

The Absence of War certainly raises many more questions than it answers. There’s just enough momentum to keep this ticking over. Yes, it does occasionally steer us towards the soap box, but that should not surprise anyone who knows anything about David Hare.

Even if one does not necessarily agree with the playwright’s political doctrines, there is no doubting the integrity of his vision, nor the company's dynamism.

Whatever one says about The Absence of War it’s always an arresting spectacle of stagecraft. And on that score alone it gets my vote.

Reviewer: David Sedgwick