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The Absence of War / The Crucible

David Hare’s 1993 play, The Absence of War, has been resurrected in a timely fashion. Set in the weeks before the 1992 election, the play features a fictionalised Labour party whose leader, George, has successfully united the party and muted its more militant socialist tendencies, just as Neil Kinnock had during Labour’s wilderness years in the 1980s. While the play has been staged as a period piece – with chunky bakerlite phones, Ceefax and paper files – its themes resonate now. The line which drew the most knowing laughs from the audience was from Brydon, a Labour old timer, loyal to the leader and party, yet desperate for both not to lose their identity in pursuit of unity and electability, “When people ask a Labour member what time it is, we ask, well what time would you like it to be?” Such a joke could be made about all major parties as reactive policies chase the nebulous everyman. George has a penchant for Shakespeare and the theatre and in his private moments orates eloquently, passionately and convincingly off the cuff, but is dissuaded since a fudged incident in the past. So his ‘special advisors’ envelop him in a protective cocoon, writing his speeches and making him stick to his lines. But on the eve of an important speech, George’s campaign manager and Brydon persuade George the public can see this reticence and scripting and they find it boring. So George is persuaded to go rogue and to speak from the heart. So he does, and he fluffs it. The speech is as difficult to watch as when real politicians try to answer an unforeseen question from the general public, and George, a great lover of Shakespeare and the monologues of great leaders contained therein, falls on his arse. There is a lot of politicking in this play which, for someone without an interest in such detail, could detract from the moments of broader resonance which result from such specificities. What is the price of party unity and coherence, does this foreclose on genuine discussion, and what impact does this have on democracy and our political landscape? While the stakes in the play might not seem particularly high, a great sense of its importance is engendered by the cast and the energetic performances given. By portraying George as a good man just sympathetic enough, The Absence of War makes the run-up to a general election that bit more interesting and that bit more human. )

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