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Gethsemane: the devil’s in the fundraising

David Hare’s New Labour satire offers little but a moral condemnation of modern, pragmatic, pro-market politics.

Patrick Marmion

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No one in British theatre has charted the demise of the anguished liberal left quite so assiduously as David Hare. A revolutionary in the Seventies, he was a scourge of Thatcherism in the Eighties, before going on to analyse the establishment in the Nineties with plays such as Racing Demon. He was knighted under Tony Blair in 1998, but today weeps at the antics of New Labour in plays such as Stuff Happens and again in his latest production, Gethsemane.

Taking its title from the garden where Jesus had a crisis of faith the night before his crucifixion, the play is about the murky business of political fundraising. It particularly laments the depoliticisation of politics and its descent into bureaucratic managerialism. In Gethsemane, an arch exponent of this tendency is the home secretary, Meredith Guest (played by Tamsin Greig), whose daughter Suzette (Jessica Raine) has been caught smoking dope at her posh private school. The girl seems to have escaped expulsion, but only, it turns out, thanks to a generous donation to the school from the Labour Party’s chief fundraiser, Otto Fallon (Stanley Townsend).

Hare has claimed that his play is pure fiction, but this appears rather disingenuous. Although strongly fictionalised, the characters in Gethsemane are clearly based on specific, real people. The home secretary in the play is not based on the real UK home secretary Jacqui Smith (she would be much too dull and soft a target), but on current Olympics minister Tessa Jowell. Just like Jowell, Meredith has a husband who boasts a decidedly shady business portfolio. Fallon, the play’s charismatic, north London rags-to-riches Jewish chief fundraiser, is clearly based on Tony Blair’s fundraising guru, Lord Levy. And the piously smug, drum-playing prime minister of the play, named Alec Beasley (Anthony Calf), is obviously bad old Tony himself.

The problem with all this, intriguing as it is, is that Hare’s play only leads him back to what he deplores most – ideology-lite, personality-led politics. Naturally the political arena is necessarily inhabited by personalities, some of them colourful, but Hare desperately tries to argue for some sense of ideological conviction amid all the spin and skulduggery in Westminster today. As one character says, ‘the only way to do good is by being clever’.

What constitutes ‘good’, though, Hare doesn’t venture. Nor does he push any particular politics, as he has done in his early work. Rather he retreats to the all-too-subjective ground of ‘integrity’; the Brown-Cameron, bi-partisan centre-ground kingdom of ‘values’.

Moreover, it is the women in the play who Hare appoints as the moral saints. The result is not only that they are the least interesting characters, but also that they carry the burden of Hare’s liberal-humanist wish-fulfilment, in a politically correct world where women are fantasised as genetically more virtuous.

Chief among these female characters is Lori Drysdale (Nicola Walker), a morally untouchable teacher who has given up her job because of the top-down, pen-pushing target culture under New Labour. She becomes the accusing conscience both of wily politicians, a seedy hack and of the manipulative fundraiser. Even her bleeding-hearted husband cannot match her moral backbone. Lori takes the neglected daughter of the home secretary, who scoffs at her mother’s pragmatism, under her protective wing.

Amongst the politicians, with their prêt-a-porter principles, the most virtuous characters are also female. Baffled by her daughter’s ingratitude, Meredith’s low-rent notion of idealism is simply ‘to make a difference’. But sadly Hare has resisted the temptation to make this character a hard-bitten political animal. Instead, for Meredith, the carcasses of other failed political careers are deemed to be at the side of the road, not in the middle and to be walked over.

Even Meredith’s cynical adviser – a righteous, shapely polyglot – is the stuff of every hetero-leftist new man’s dreams. And inevitably the designated scumbag of the play is a male journalist who has the morals of a Machiavellian sewer rat. He takes much of the women’s indignation at what Hare establishes as the disintegration of standards in public life – a world where politicians lose jobs not for their policies but for sexual or fiscal misdemeanours.

All that, though, is grist to the mill of the modern political circus and it actually only seems to ratchet up Hare’s rage. There is a strong sense of impotent fury at a supposedly left-wing government in the pocket of big business, proudly crushing civil liberties and waging multiple wars of occupation in the name of ethical foreign policy. Yet while Hare despairs of the politicians, the real devil of the piece is the fundraiser – and he’s got all the best lines.

Otto Fallon, played by a cheerfully corpulent Stanley Townsend, stands aloof from all the hand-wringing, self-flagellation and bogus conscience examination that is the New Labourites’ lot. He’s also much more rock-and-roll than his real-life equivalent, Levy. He’s a pony-tailed ex-hairdresser who smokes roll-ups and wins squash matches without even moving his feet. He is effortlessly and dangerously magnetic.

Fallon’s red-headed, gay sidekick Frank Pegg (Pip Carter) is also a marvellous little creation, reminiscent of the Eighties animated comic character Max Headroom. Pegg gave up sex with women because it wasn’t addictive and now his greatest pleasure is drizzling extra virgin olive oil over the finest Parma ham for the delectation and beguilement of his master’s affluent guests.

Both these characters inadvertently offer a way out of the vexed impasse that the play presents between political managerialism and idealism. It is fitting that this struggle takes the form, in part, of a contest between religious faith and secular rationalism. But like most left-wing liberal humanists, Hare fails to see that these are not antithetical, but rather two sides of the same coin. Nor will privileging one over the other provide the political fix Hare pines for.

Otto Fallon therefore offers a way out of the cul-de-sac in which contemporary politics – and Hare’s thinking – finds itself. Fallon’s amorality makes him a sort of ‘Lord Levy of Misrule’ who destabilises the order of things. And that could be exactly what is needed now to fill the gaping political vacuum. The markets are certainly primed for chaos and maybe an economic and political Gethsemane is now inescapable and must be confronted.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent.

Gethsemane is being performed at the Cottesloe Theatre, National Theatre, London SE1. For further details see here.

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