Theatre Review: The Absence of War at Bristol Old Vic
This review was first written for The Public Reviews
In this election year 2015, many of the themes of David Hare’s TheAbsence of War are so contemporary, it’s hard to believe this play originally premiered in 1993. A man who has risen to the top of the Labour Party sacrifices the authentic voice which got him there, in order to make himself electable. In private charismatic, in public he’s unable to get his message across.
Today we might think of Ed Miliband, yet here, as Labour leader George Jones is undermined at every turn by his shadow chancellor Malcolm Pryce, Hare also foreshadows the querulous relationship that is yet to come between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Similarly, he anticipates the curse of spin, fencing in a new generation of career politicians, as George’s non-elected adviser Oliver Dix seeks to keep him on message. George must steer away from the economy and focus on healthcare, suppressing everything he wants to say from the heart.
In other ways, The Absence of War can be viewed as a period piece. A Labour party still daring to speak the name of socialism, yet to become New Labour and steal the centre ground from the Tories. There are no mobile phones to be checked obsessively – Ceefax appears on TV screens and MPs are told the official party line by pager. Most strikingly of all, cigarettes can still be smoked in the office.
Headlong’s new revival, in association with Sheffield Theatres and Rose Theatre Kingston, began its UK tour in Sheffield, home of the infamous speech which is reputed to have cost Labour leader Neil Kinnock the election in 1992. In Bristol, due to illness, Trevor Fox replaces Reece Dinsdale in the role of George Jones. These are big shoes to fill, but Fox is convincingly more than just a stand in, delivering a genuinely caring leader tortured by his inability to put his point across succinctly when it comes to the crunch, too quick to anger and undone by a betrayal close to home.
The rest of the cast provide strong support; Cyril Nri excels as the detached and calculating Oliver who insists that George sticks to his agreed strategy at all costs. Charlotte Lucas gives a polished performance as publicity adviser Lindsay Fontaine and Gyuri Sarossy is ruthlessly conniving as the shadow chancellor who never pays more than lip service in his support for his leader – Malcolm’s showdown with George in the heat of the campaign is the most mesmerising scene of all.
Jeremy Herrin’s direction gives the piece much pace and visual flair, the landscape of designer Mike Britton’s TV screens reflecting the outside world in terms of news broadcasts, the simple coloured backdrop creating a stunning silhouette in the Remembrance Sunday commemorations.
With fighting in Ukraine, Syria and other fronts threatening to bring terror to our streets, it feels as though today’s political vacuum has been created not so much by a lack of war but by our failure to find a coherent response to its fragmentation. Yet Hare’s writing is prophetic in so many ways and has retained all of its scintillating sharpness, despite the passage of time. Much may have changed, but The Absence of War reminds us there’s still a fundamental need to ensure that genuine conviction of belief is not extinguished in the ruthless pursuit of power.
Runs until 14th March 2015 as part of a UK tour | Photo: Mark Douet