David Hare’s new play for the National Theatre traces the divergent paths of two former lovers from a dingy dorm room in late 90s Newcastle right through to the comfortably furnished settings of the Labour Party HQ.
The story opens in 2018 with a rambunctious press conference in which the ever acerbic but loyal press officer to MP Pauline Gibson fends off questions as to whether she intends to run for leader of the Labour Party. The play then weaves in and out of the present day spanning back to Pauline’s university days as a medical student and daughter embroiled in her mother’s alcoholism. Our first glimpse into Pauline and Jack’s relationship begins with a breakup scene in Pauline’s university dorm. Complete with the requisite young-couple-in-crisis dynamics, Jack cracks open the tinnies and makes his case before Pauline despondently face-dives into the bed, all under the watchful eye of a conspicuous Chemical Brothers poster.
Jump forward a decade or so and Pauline is working as an NHS doctor who campaigns to save a hospital in Corby before standing for parliament as an independent where her path crosses with Jack once more. Son of “Labour aristocracy,” Jack talks the talk and walks the walk of the machine politician and finds himself potentially vying for Labour Party leadership with his former lover and now MP Pauline Gibson.
It’s an engaging watch, packed with delicious one-liners and urgent observations and the temporal leaps are beautifully handled by Ralph Myers’ minimal yet effective set, nonetheless the show falls somewhat flat on account of the text.
As is characteristic of Hare’s plays, the female characters in I’m Not Running are the bastions of empathy pitted against the cold, calculating rationale of their male counterparts. I’d be the first to admit that the observation is not unfounded, but it doesn’t allow for a very nuanced portrayal of Jack as the male lead, whose mansplaining smooth-talk leaves him with all the wrong shades of grey. The black and white characterisations and the at times transparent insertion of current topics such as the #MeToo movement, as well as the lack of any mention of the Tories, Brexit or the current Labour Party leader make for a somewhat superficial comment on our current political climate. The closest we get to a mention of Corbyn is the town of Corby where Pauline works as an NHS doctor. That’s not to say Hare has a writerly duty to reflect on the immediate circumstances of our times, but I feel it could have led to a more interesting debate that might have provoked more than my disgruntled neighbour’s remark that the play “wasn’t Hare’s best..”.
Nonetheless, Siân Brooke’s performance as Pauline is handled with grace and, for the most part, conviction. She almost loses us with her spoofish rendition of Pauline’s 20 year old self and she has a strange tendency to elongate her words which makes her sound very theatre daaahling. But overall a fiery spirit wins out with a touch of Kristen Scott Thomas in her handling of Pauline’s icy wit. Alex Hassell’s complacently charismatic rendition of Jack Gould hits the mark and Joshua McGuire, who plays Sandy, loyal press officer to Pauline, is a comedy legend in the making.
Shortcomings aside, motives are a hot topic in this play, as they should be IRL. The ongoing relationship between Jack and Pauline, whilst sometimes implausible, gives us access to the kinds of conversations one wouldn’t normally overhear between two sparring MPs. Their past intimacy makes space for more penetrating discussions that reveal Jack’s personal interest in becoming a politician. Pauline remarks, for instance, “I knew from the day we met, you wanted a nice life” with all the trappings, restaurants and soft furnishings, to which Jack concedes despite his unconvincing claim that he also wants to help others.
Moreover, some important feelings emerge from the show. I emphasise feelings for they play a central role in a piece that explores a political culture all too often dominated by facts and figures. Writing as a woman, the play left me with a swelling of pride for Pauline who takes on a culture bent on rationalisation and personal interest.
I can also say it galvanised me (oh hey conspicuous Chemical Brothers poster) in several ways. It reminded me that there is not only a space but a great big gap in politics for people with an empathetic heart and a strong sense of justice and that more women are needed to bridge that gap. Here come the stats – since 2017’s general election, women make up only 32% of the House of Commons. In the House of Lords this figure drops to 26%, and again 26% of permanent Cabinet posts. I invite you to amuse/infuriate yourself counting the number of white, balding heads in the house of commons during the PM’s questions. And by extension, as Pauline remarks, surely the Labour Party is running out of the excuses that keep women from being in charge.
It crossed my mind that if there were more Paulines and less Jacks in government we might not be where we are today – at the time of writing in the eye of a political shit-storm as we approach March 29th with a Plan B nearly identical to a rejected Plan A and thus currently no actually acceptable plan for a deal with the EU.
Was it the most illuminating two or so hours of political theatre? No. Did it prompt me to order Isabel Hardman’s new book Why We Get the Wrong Politicians and dust off an estranged copy of Martha Nussbaum’s Political Emotions? Yes indeed.
Ticket prices start from £15 and if January’s “inclement weather” is deterring you from making the trip over to the Southbank, then you can catch a National Theatre Live screening at cinemas near you on January 31st. Holla at you Ladies.
Words, Sophia Carlotta
Photograph, Mark Douet