Hansard (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

This new play by Simon Woods is set in the political turmoil of 1988, where the Conservative government of the day was pushing through the Local Government Act and its controversial Section 28.

Alex Jennings in Hansard
Alex Jennings in Hansard

Alex Jennings plays Robin, a minor figure is the government. He’s in the Cotswolds for the traditional weekend to enjoy his lawn, a meal with friends, and a reunion with the left-wing wife (Diana, played by Lindsay Duncan) he appears to hate.

What follows is 80 minutes of tedious sparring which feels like a poor imitation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which Robin constantly belittles his wife’s looks, politics, attempts at affection, drinking, and even devotion to their sports-loving son. He may not be the stereotypical Tory, but as a man he is repellent, and that’s a difficulty even the director (Simon Godwin) and actor cannot get past.

It’s 1988 but Diana appears to spend all her time in the house, without working: unlikely at that time, and with her progressive views surely she would be out and about making a difference to those underprivileged types she talks about. Hansard does seem to spend a long time making fun of the opposition viewpoint, though, including the old and laboured joke about “a succession of leaders who look like badly dressed geography teachers”.

Lindsay Duncan in Hansard
Lindsay Duncan in Hansard

Despite the excellent performances from both Jennings and Duncan, who rarely misstep, I felt they were not given enough to do. Despite the odd sparkling line, the whole play felt desperately out of step now and certainly questionable for 1988. The use of the son as a cypher to explain why Robin supports Section 28 made no sense, and the speech by Diana when she describes finding “my boy” in a dress and make-up and feeling repelled is simply frustrating. A section where Robin goads Diana by suggesting she can “make her mark” by contracting AIDS is misjudged, at best.

I really wanted to like this play, as on the page it has much potential and the arguments across the political divide, both political and personal, could have been much fresher and believable. Instead we wait through those minutes of sniping which feel staged and when the moment comes when this couple crumple and find common ground due to that terrible event in their lives, we feel nothing for them.

Hansard feels like a throwback comedy for the middle-classes, but it just isn’t funny or biting enough.

Photo credits Catherine Ashmore.