When it was first performed in 2012 James Graham’s This House was an affectionate satire, using its 1970s setting to examine the still young Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government formed in 2010. The shoring-up of minority governments opens all kinds of dramatic possibilities as the ruling parties use every trick in the book to ensure their legislative agenda survives while the Opposition, with the scent of blood in their nostrils, knows their hour is soon to come. Setting This House in 1974-1979, Graham situated his very contemporary play in the last UK coalition when the dying embers of the Labour government offered ample comedic examples of beleaguered MPs, frustrated Whips and savage backbiting to dramatise. It was, however, clearly a play that is optimistic about the Parliamentary process suggesting, for all its faults, it is among the strongest and most respected democratic systems in the world.
Eight years on, it is hard to think so as a weak Conservative government struggled to manage Brexit negotiations and the House as its own members turned against the Prime Minister. The last election may have delivered a stronger mandate but the democratic process has been actively besieged in the last 12 months as Parliament and judiciary fought to prevent the PM from proroguing his own Parliament and ignite his own form of Personal Rule (that worked out so well for Charles I!), while the muddles and deceptions of lockdown have only emphasised the untold influence of shady advisors – the modern day equivalent of evil counselors – who seek to bypass due process in the increasingly hollow-sounding name of “the people”.
Undoubtedly still a wonderful play, this National Theatre at Home streaming of This House arrives at a peculiar moment in our history, one that has altered the context around the play and its general political optimism. Recent years have shown us that truth is most certainly stranger than fiction, and that perhaps all hope of eventual rebalance may be gone. So where does this leave the Parliamentary play? In the last ten years, aside from Laura Wade’s Posh about the making of the men who’ve led us during that time and satirical Fringe pieces about Brexit or big personalities like Boris Johnson, there have been only four significant plays about the nature of government, political parties and the operational democratic process – This House and Labour of Love both by Graham, David Hare’s I’m Not Running and Simon Woods’s Hansard.
The success of these plays has been variable and with three-quarters of them produced by the National Theatre, there has been a collective nod to the failure of our two party system to adequately reflect the views and needs of the nation. Parliament, it seems from these plays, is ruled by personality, faction and self-interested powerplay intended to disguise the weakness of leadership or pave the way for a fresher-looking successor. By contrast, the kind of politics the nation cares about is issue driven – investment in education or the NHS, declining technological output and the more divisive issues of immigration and European unity. These stories tell us that the gap between those who lead and the electorate feels wider than ever while providing little hope, as things stand, of coming together.
The Failure to Govern
Nowhere has this been more clearly elucidated than in 2019’s Hansard, a fascinating two-hander between a Conservative government minister and his frustrated left-leaning wife whose Albee-esque marriage seems to reflect the division at the heart of British politics and its failure to serve the nation. The 90-minute conversation between Robin (Alex Jennings) and Diana (Lindsay Duncan) swirls continually around the fundamental purpose of government; whether to create a structure in which people can and should help themselves or to develop a more interventionist programme that insists on social support for the most vulnerable. Set in 1988 at the time of the Section 28 vote, Hansard ably dramatises the gap between government and governing in which the need to stay in power by obeying the party line overrides and is often the key reason to exercise power – an instance we see repeatedly in This House as Labour’s weakened Whips office focuses entirely on “the business of deals” to maintain their regime.
Labour of Love says much the same as Graham unpicks the central versus local party struggle across a number of years in a single constituency. Parachuting-in rising star David Lyons (Martin Freeman) to cut his teeth in a safe Labour seat becomes the conduit for excavating the particular divisions within the Labour Party since Tony Blair’s sweeping election victory in 1997 and the increasing struggle to contain the traditional, leftist Trade Union elements of the grassroots party and reconcile it with the centrist – and ultimately more electable – promotional politics of the Blair era. But what this play really does is to expose the increasing distance between the metropolitan and arguably globally-focused centre of politics in London and the needs of constituency members across the country – a division made painfully obvious in the 2016 Brexit vote and ongoing fallout.
As with Hansard, there is an irreconcilable problem in which high-level government policy becomes so removed from the realities of society to be almost meaningless to the vast majority of people, while communities cry out for specific local services under threat from high-level policy. One thing that made Lynn Nottage’s Sweat so resonant was exactly that understanding of the huge distance between national political agendas and their consequences for everyday lives.
David Hare’s 2019 play I’m Not Running received mixed reviews as a dramatic exercise, but it also focused on the Labour Party over a number of years, considering the rise and subsequent failure of leadership in scenes of deal-making and double-crossing redolent of This House. The introduction of a central romantic relationship between Sian Brooke’s Pauline Gibson and Alex Hassell’s Jack Gould takes some of the same pathways as Hansard in using a personal connection to examine a political divide. Hare’s play splits along two lines, looking at the selection of the party leader and the internal rivalries that so often detract from the business of governing, as well as the overall failure within the Labour Party in particular to reconcile its ideological and procedural arms as its management rolls between issue-based and career politicians.
The Cult of Legacy
Power is intoxicating and given a taste of it, few administrations will easily relinquish their position. One key driver of this is the obsession with legacy, of leaving behind a series of society-changing measures or leading the country through a period of crisis. Sadly for the governed, Prime Ministers who set out to assure their place in history rarely do for the right reasons, and often make the worst leaders. We see some discussion of this in Hansard as MP Robin uses the political record as his primary guide to decision-making, concerned how his voting record will look to history as well as how it could damage his chances of advancement within the party.
This House worries about this too as the ailing Labour government limps on, the Whips in this case determined to pass legislation that will keep their administration afloat for the full term. Rather than setting course for a positive place in history based on its reforming programme, its only goal becomes not going down in history as a government ousted by a vote of no confidence. Staying in power and preventing the opposing Conservative team from leading the House becomes the primary motivation, hoping that history will turn a blind eye to the shoddy tactics and increasingly desperate scrabbling for votes that characterised this Parliamentary session.
Even in Labour of Love, David must choose between blandly supporting the central party and its personable leader at all costs, or giving-up any thought of his own progress and promotion in order to make a stand for his community. With a focus on the debate between electability and principle that divide the Labour Party, the question of political and individual legacy is examined through this play’s time-travelling structure. Told in reverse chronological order from 2017 to 1990 and then back again, Graham’s drama looks at the consequences of legacy decisions over time, with MP David pre-determining his own contribution to political life by mapping out a rise through the ranks that will take him from safe seat to Minister, knowing all the while – like the characters of This House – that his rosy future depends on toeing the line and keeping his party in power at all costs. The consequences David learns are felt in local politics where the needs of the constituency are sacrificed to the futile attempts to second guess what history will make of the party’s time in power.
This House in 2020
Eight years on the sands have certainly shifted which casts This House in something of a different light. It remains a brilliantly constructed, whip smart and hilarious theatrical experience, one of the great plays of the last 10 years that pulls you into its story, never shying away from the complexity of the political situation and its consequences for democracy, yet still creating empathy and understanding for people on all sides however wittily portrayed. But, it reminds us of something we seem to have lost, where once our elected officials appeared to work within the established system, inventively stretching it to the limits but still respecting the boundaries, very recent political manoeuvering has seemed intent on bypassing the system entirely. Whatever side of the political divide you sit on – left or right, Conservative or Labour, Brexit or Remain or somewhere in between – an enduring faith in our democratic system and most importantly the institution of Parliament has been fundamentally wounded by the events of the last four years. Watching This House again thus became an almost nostalgic experience, one that makes us mourn slightly for a time when everyone respected the rules and agreed to play by them.
Graham’s work has always been so good at taking the temperature of our times, examining the centres of power within society and asking big questions about how and why our structures operate as they do, as well as the consequences for the individuals they effect whether the focus is the nature of justice and trial by media in Quiz or the wave of populist energy that quickly spun out of control created by the liberation of the newspaper industry in Ink. This House is essentially an optimistic play, about the ability of Parliament to right itself eventually. Any fundamental and permanent damage to our democracy inflicted by the last four years remains to be seen, but if a rumoured follow-up to This House is in the works, we can be sure Graham will be there to make sense of it for us.