Hansard (National Theatre) – Review – Live Cinema Screening
By Eve Luddington, November 2019
Simon Woods makes his playwriting debut with this two-hander, produced by the National Theatre and live-streamed from the Lyttelton Theatre. Don’t be misled by the title: Hansard is not a dramatisation of debates in the Houses of Parliament, it’s much more personal than that. Thanks to the exceptional acting talents of Lindsay Duncan (Lady Smallwood in Sherlock) and Alex Jennings (Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor in The Crown), it’s a compelling production, with lots of razor-edged laughs and some deeply affecting poignancy
It’s May 1988. Margaret Thatcher has become the longest serving Prime Minister of the 20th century and her policies of de-nationalisation and de-regulating the finance sector are in full flow. Individualism is replacing Community.
Tory MP and Cabinet Minister, Robin Hesketh, has had a tough week in Westminster culminating in a trip to Leeds to take part in Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’. On Saturday morning, when the play begins, he returns to his Cotswolds home – complete with Aga cooker and outsize dining table – for his usual weekend of verbal duelling with his wife of 30 years, Diana. She’s a heavy drinker with a venomous tongue.
He is ‘heartbroken’ about the fox which is digging up their garden; she’s far more concerned about the Government’s destruction of the entire country. She wonders why voters ‘have an insatiable desire to be f***ked by an Old Etonian’ (such as Robin); he wonders why he continues to come home every weekend. So, too, does the audience for much of the play because that the couple’s sparring match, though entertaining, doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere.
Woods’ writing sparkles with caustic wit and bracing epithets, some of which might be the playwright’s political point-scoring rather than the characters’. The domestic analogy he puts in Robin’s mouth to explain the difference between Socialist and Tory ideology is succinct and thought-provoking: when a child falls off his bike, a Socialist puts the stabilisers back on; a Tory believes it’s better to leave the child to learn from experience. As a first venture into playwriting, Hansard is very promising, but its plotting is sparse, so we can’t easily follow the through-line.
We’re given hints that Diana’s jibes are even more vicious than usual because she’s particularly upset by the past week in Westminster where Section 28 of the Local Government Act has been passed which commits local authorities ‘not to promote the acceptability of homosexuality.’ By the end of the play, we know exactly why Diana’s outraged to hear her husband defend the clause; and several truly shocking bombshell revelations show us a great deal more about the couple and their relationship – but it’s a long time coming. In less talented hands, we might lose interest.
Fortunately, Simon Godwin’s direction is slick and well-paced, and both actors are outstanding. They give beautifully nuanced performances; their facial expressions revealing pits of troubled emotions beneath their words. Robin’s quietly patronising explanations of his values, his blasé dismissal of introspection and pointed attacks on Diana, slide easily out of Alex Jennings’ mouth, and yet we sense the character’s vulnerability. At the end, when his pain is exposed, it’s as if he’s been stripped naked. Lindsay Duncan, smiling as she injects verbal poison, makes Diana the Queen of sarcasm, but her claim that ‘I’m not highly strung, I’m deeply unhappy’ is indisputably true. Diana’s despair is tangible in Duncan’s finely tuned performance.
I’d have been happy to see Hansard on stage, if I could have afforded the fare to London and the theatre tickets but I’m very grateful to have had a ‘front row’ seat to watch two outstanding performers at their peak. National Theatre Live’s streaming events offer national and international audiences the chance to see some of the UK’s best theatre locally. Wakefield Cineworld was about half-full. Please, if you haven’t yet been to a live-streaming, give it a try.