My forays into contemporary theatre have not been entirely successful. I was the only person in Christendom not to find Noises Off riotously funny, and I’ll never get back the two tortorous hours I spent watching Oleanna. However, I’m delighted to report that David Hare’s Gethsemane was nothing short of brilliant. The title is a biblical allusion to resisting temptation, and the play explores the very topical inter-relation of business, media and politics.
Mike Drysdale, an ex civil servant, lands a lucrative job with Otto Fallon, an art dealer and fundraiser for New Labour. Mike discovers that he has been recommended for the post by Meredith Guest, the Home Secretary, and starts to realise he will have to leave his principles at the door if he wants to succeed. Meredith is appalled to learn that Fallon’s machinations are responsible for covering up the scandal of her teenage daughter’s drug habit. Although she resents his intervention, she realises he is vital to the preservation of her precarious position. She is played by the sublime Tamsin Grieg and is the most complex and engaging character in the play. Hare’s inspiration is not hard to indentify. Meredith’s husband is on trial for his unethical overseas business deals, and she has long forgotten her political ideals and is now just “locking up Arabs” and protecting the British public from an unidentified threat. Although essentially good and genuinely wanting to “make a difference”, the tripartite alliance of business, media and politics means she has no time to reflect on what is right, and simply does whatever is expedient. As she says, Harold Macmillan had time to read Trollope and walk on the moors, but she just works.
She is confronted with the dangers of a media-dominated state when an unscrupulous journalist (is that a tautology?) has sex with her 16 year old daughter and extracts damaging revelations from her. The journalist absolves himself of responsibility by claiming that he’s victim of society and has no choice but to behave as he does. Throughout the various strands, Mike’s wife Lori acts as their moral conscience – a Jiminy Cricket, who appears by their side and urges them to question their actions. She is an ex teacher who has taken up busking at Baron’s Court tube station, and thus is completely removed from the murky world inhabited by the other characters. She wants nothing from them and equally they can get nothing from her. Although Meredith recognises she is right, intertia and self-preservation overrule her heart, and her daughter is the one who suffers.
The play is poignant, funny and clever, and offers an insightful commentary on the malaise that surrounds New Labour. I suspect Jacqui Smith won’t be going to see it. Perhaps she’ll just stay in a watch a film instead.