National Theatre, Cottlesloe. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark. Developed by the Out of Joint Company at the National Theatre Studio. There was apparently an interview and research that lasted some nine months (according to a program note by the author).
The play represents a departure from what might be assumed to be David Hare’s normal method of writing a play and his usual way of rehearsing it, once written. The Out of Joint people, with whom the most well-known dramatist Caryl Churchill is, or has been, most closely associated, start with an idea rather than a semi-finished script and, over some months, develop it into a collaborative product with the author. Churchill’s preface to Cloud 9 explains the process. Just as surely as Churchill’s authorial presence survives and thrives everywhere in that play, so does Hare’s in this serrated knife of a play about the privatization of British Rail.
The play embraces a kind of naïve realism as its fictional style, seemingly composed of a series of statements by survivors and bereaved, who have been invited to the National Theatre this night to share their experiences of loss and surviving in a series of increasingly deadly train accidents since the late 1990s. The play runs almost two hours in one, uninterrupted act (there is no indication of intermission in the program). The program does identify the production as the world premiere, though it also explains that its true premier took place at York Theatre Royal in November 2003; tonight was the last “preview” of a play that is by any standard ready to “open” tomorrow night. It is expertly performed by about a dozen actors, most of them doubling the roles.
It flows unerringly and never comes near derailment in its truly gripping treatment of the colossal gap between officialdom and the horrific and pitiable experience of people who lost loved ones or, in one way or another, lived through the experience of a collision or other disaster. Hare’s aim here is very sure, and the tone of the play is masterfully well managed. There is nothing in the least mawkish or sentimental about the presentation of what seemed to be true-to-life experiences of people implicated in a variety of ways by their connection with one of these catastrophes. I thought at first I might be in for a heavy-handed, blame-fixing indictment of Thatcherite governmental politics, a sort of adaptation of the classic agit-prop scheme of rousing an audience to some kind of fever pitch of reaction. But such an approach would have ended up being no more than preaching to the choir. Hare will have none of this, and besides he has more important things to do — things that remind us that what engages his attention in several ways is not inculpation or exculpation, but the deep roots of human folly, loss, and suffering, of missed opportunity and lasting regret, and of the terrible events of life that somehow end up binding us together. One of the characters in the play, a woman who is an attorney and who ends up taking on the cases of several dozen persons who are bereaved over the loss of loved ones in “accidents,” utters the closing line. “I’ve tried to think,” she says, “of how to describe the phenomenon that brings complete strangers together as a result of these events” (I am being more explicitly verbose than she here). “I call it ‘hysterical friendship’.” And the stage goes dark.
By this time the great power of the play to engage its audience is abundantly clear. The audience leaves more than a little stunned. This is not a call for an improvement in rail service or in the taking of responsibility by officials when things go manifestly wrong (though there are voices of characters in the play who articulate such calls). It is a recall of how we are all implicated in such events and their aftermath, an implication that no flight to Europe and its more smoothly functioning rail service will avert. Hare is above all a face-the-facts dramatist; and if those facts are radical ones that frame and define what it is to be what we are, then so be it.
The actress who plays the attorney has another line, earlier on, that came home to me in painful personal ways. “The worst loss of all,” she says, turning up stage and about to exit, “is to lose an adult child.” I had to square my shoulders and decide to stay, after that, though I had an impulse to run from the theatre. My thought was that there were other people in the audience who had suffered comparable loss, and that such loss is the law of life. This is what Hare writes about, the laws of life, if I may put it that way; and that he does so with unflinching clarity and insight is the reason why so many people want to see his plays. And so it was the reason why, tonight, I had to be content with the seat I managed to book two or three weeks ago, by phone, from the ’States, a restricted-view seat in the top circle where you have to lean forward and stick your head out over the railing in order to see the near half of the stage. In this case, a stiff back and a craned neck are well worth the inconvenience. I would not have missed this play for anything — and I am now primed to see the revival of another Hare play, The Secret Rapture, this coming Saturday.
I seem not to be able to get enough of David Hare. I arrived early at the theatre tonight and had time to browse through the generous display of Hare plays and other writings, and bought the following: The Secret Rapture, Via Dolarosa (a monologue based on Hare’s visit to Israel, performed in London and New York by Hare himself), and a long memoir, Acting Up, about that performance.