Hansard starring Lindsay Duncan & Alex Jennings – review

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Hansard in the Lyttelton Theatre of the National Theatre is what I love about theatre. Forget video screens, background music, special effects. Simply two great actors live on stage telling a story to a live audience. For ninety unbroken minutes this couple bickers and takes swipes at each other until eventually they reveal what’s behind their fractured relationship. It’s art on a human scale.

Production shot from Hansard at the National Theatre with Lindsay Duncan and Alex JenningsAnd what’s amazing is that this is Simon Woods’ first play which makes its perfect structure and precise and funny dialogue all the more remarkable. And there’s confidence in how he handles his audience- he’s even bold enough to make a joke about plays with no interval. 

In case you don’t know, Hansard is the written record of all that is said in Parliament. But it doesn’t tell the full story. This play is about what’s not said. The story behind the legislation. The point where the personal and the political meet.

It’s 1988. Robin, a public schoolboy MP, arrives home for the weekend. His wife Diana seems unprepared for his arrival. She isn’t happy that his government has just passed section 28 which outlaws sympathetic teaching about homosexuality. He’s upset at how wild animals are wrecking his lawn. She lays into him, pretending she thinks he’s talking about what his government is doing to the country. There are many more crowd pleasing snipes at the public schoolboys who run the Conservative government and the country. For example, there’s a joke about how people who keep voting for them are like abused partners. It all sounds so contemporary despite being set 30 years ago. 

It’s clearly familiar ground this couple are going over, a bit like putting on old slippers, neither surprises the other, being amused even by each other’s insults.

Gradually the humour subsides without totally disappearing and the previously unspoken reason for the schism between them is revealed, followed by secrets that are deeply upsetting but show how much they have misunderstood one another in their anger.

I suspect Diana and Robin owe a debt to Edward Albee’s warring couple in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? but this war of words is less vicious or at least more civilised.

Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings convince

Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings, directed by Simon Godwin, are top class. He is totally believable as the upper class husband who keeps his emotions battened down and reacts to everything in the modest self-deprecating way of those born to rule. (I was very impressed by his ability to first cook toast on an Aga and then eat it while still projecting his lines to the back of the circle.)

She too is upper class but while she enunciates vowels that could cut glass, her voice is strained by emotion suggesting she is close to the edge. Even so, she is in control enough to toy with her husband and give him sideways looks that could cut steak.

These are convincing characters in a real situation. What implications there are about the way we conduct our politics- her ineffective left wing words, his assumption of his right to govern, the need for understanding and common ground- are very subtly woven in. 

Hildegard Bechtler’s set, a naturalistic kitchen and dining area, uses the often intimidating width of the Lyttelton stage to great effect by bringing down the proscenium arch until it looks even wider, like a letterbox. Which means the warring couple seem at times miles apart. 

You might wonder why 1988, why not now? Certainly much of what is said in the play could refer to today. Common values, tolerance and liberal democracy are once again taking a bashing at the hands of public schoolboys. I guess one answer is that setting it in the past will stop it being dated. But it’s also an important reminder that government backed homophobia was present in Britain only 30 years ago and therefore how recent and possibly fragile gains in LGBT rights are.

Hansard is an excellent and an important play.

Hansard continues at the National Theatre until 25 November 2019 and can be seen at cinemas on 7 November 2019.

Rutherford And Son – National Theatre – review

Roger Allam shines in dull play


2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

Production photo of Roger Allam in Rutherford And Son at the National Theatre London
Roger Allam in Rutherford And Son. Photo: Johan Persson

Much is being made by the National Theatre of how this play and its author Githa Sowerby are not that well known and that if she had been a man, it would have been a different story. She would have stood alongside Bernard Shaw or even Ibsen in whose footsteps she followed with this realist drama of ideas. Well, I would have to say, on the strength of this production, there’s another reason that this play is not well known and that is that it ‘s dull. Worthy but dull.

Before I go into detail, let me say that the acting is excellent. Roger Allam dominates as an actor much the same as his character dominates. It’s a powerful performance as the bullying father who is more committed to his family glassmaking business than to his family. His beard deserves a star dressing room of its own. It says to all the other characters, I can grow bigger thicker beard than any of you. 

Admittedly I saw a preview, so it may get better. Maybe it’s Polly Findlay’s heavy handed production that doesn’t do Sowerby’s work justice. I’ve no doubt part of the problem is the perennial one of the size of the Lyttelton stage. This is an intimate family drama intended for a stage the size of a drawing room, not one made for spectacle. I’ve seen The Cherry Orchard chopped down by this auditorium so Rutherford And Son is in good company.

Even so, I was not convinced that this play has aged well since its premiere in 1912. The story tells how Rutherford’s grown up children rebel against the repressive businessman. It was revolutionary in its time for its depiction of women as people who could think for themselves and lead lives of their own, not to mention its exposé of the patriarchy, class prejudice and the evils of capitalism.

Well, I’m all for exposing the patriarchy but I found the outcome of their family quarrels too predictable, mainly because nearly all the characters were caricatures of weak men. They just bounced off Rutherford who was the polar opposite, powerful and with depth.

Production photo of Roger Allam & Anjana Vasan in Rutherford And Son
Roger Allam & Anjana Vasan in Rutherford And Son. Photo: Johan Persson

The women were stronger and their engagement with Rutherford more interesting. Anjana Vasan is  the working class daughter-in-law Mary, who realises she needs to be as ruthless as Rutherford. Justine Mitchell is the put-upon daughter who learns she can’t rely on men.

The characters may be weak but, as I said, the cast is strong. It includes Joe Armstrong as the blindly loyal worker Martin and Sam Troughton as Rutherford’s ineffectual, overwrought son John who has been alienated from the business.

Lizzie Clachan‘s set is naturalistic and full of detail as befits a realist drama. It suggests the draughty, high maintenance nature of homes in those days and the bleakness of life with Rutherford.

I recommend that if you want to experience a strong female character and a critique of society in the genre of realist drama, you give this a miss and go across the river to see the wonderful production of Ibsen’s Rosmerholm at the Duke Of York’s.

Note: More about Roger Allam’s performance added on 6 June 2019. YouTube review re-recorded with better sound quality on 13 June 2019.

Rutherford And Son can be seen at the National Theatre until 3 August 2019

Click here to watch the review of Rutherford And Son on YouTube