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A CurtainUp London London Review

People believe in a book. They say, "Everything that is true is in this book." We are the people without a book.— Lori Drysdale
Tamsin Greig as Meredith Guest and Jessica Raine as Suzette Guest
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
David Hare's plays are always well crafted, cleverly written but they somehow rarely involve me. I don't care what becomes of his characters. Gethsemane, his latest, is no exception but at least some of the ideas are more involving, although I feel Hare writes to jibe at the New Labour government with its over reliance on spin and expediency.

Gethsemane is maybe a comedy — it certainly has plenty of Hareism wry observations whether it's musing on designer food or the British tendency to equivocate — and is centred on the world of politics, party fund raising and dirty deals. As the last in a trilogy which started with The Permanent Way (factual) Stuff Happens (partially transcribed), Gethsemane is fictional. The brilliant Howard Davies directs and the casting is pitch perfect, drawing on strong performers from other recent National Theatre productions. The allusion to Christ's weeping tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane as he decides to fulfil his destiny at the crucifixion is interpreted here as being about deciding to continue on a path which will be painful.

Gethsemane is centred on the potential scandal in a Labour Cabinet under Prime Minister Alec Beasley (Anthony Calf) but surrounding his female Home Secretary, Meredith Guest (Tamsin Greig), to do with a cover up concerning drug taking and her daughter Suzette (Jessica Raine). There have also been some historical sleaze allegations to do with Mr Drysdale's (who we never meet) business transactions. Political wheeler dealer and popular music millionaire, Otto Fallon (Stanley Townsend) is these days fundraising for the Labour Party and it is his appearance on the Board of Governors of Suzette's school which leads to articles in the press as to how Suzette was not expelled for taking drugs. What threatens the position of the Home Secretary is not the original scandal per se but the orchestrated cover up for this Teflon coated Prime Minister.

Hare draws a fascinating picture of the party machinery from Guest's capable and cool assistant Monique Toussaint (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who often knows more than the minister so that the minister can say she didn't know, through Mike Drysdale (Daniel Ryan), brilliant civil servant and newly in the employ of Otto, to Anthony Calf's Prime Minister who gives Otto so much suspect leeway in the pursuit of rich donors. The message seems to be that staying in power is more important than what policies can be implemented.

Mike Drysdale's wife Lori (Nicola Walker) has dropped out of teaching (as it happens at Suzette's previous school, a state comprehensive) and is working as a busker but is pulled in as someone who can communicate well with Suzette. The Drysdales are both people of honour, out of their depth in this nasty political pond. There is also Geoff Benzine (Adam James) a brilliant Oxford historian who has become a journalist of the sleaziest newspaper, who has slept with near 16 year old Suzette and who in the face of threats to expose his sexual indiscretion to his partner has to decide whether to go ahead and publish. Another Gethsemane?

En famille, Meredith and Suzette scream at each other across the generation divide, the mother feeling her daughter is deliberately fouling up her career and the daughter angry at the lack of attention from her mother. A dinner out sees Suzette refusing to eat the sea bass and her mother's fury at the expensive waste of yes, sea bass. Their scenes are tense and expertly played. Meredith in turn asks the Prime Minister why Otto means more to him than the government in this hierarchy of perceived betrayal. The performances are faultless from the confidence of Stanley Townsend's Otto to the detachment of Calf's Prime Minister or Nicola Walker's concerned but adrift ex-teacher worried that this government is involved in two wars. Tamsin Greig's Meredith is ambitious and threatens the PM in the scene where he warns her that he may have to ask for her resignation, "I won't go quietly, Alec" she says. In a phenomenal performance as the impossible teenager, Jessica Raine's Suzette rages with her own mother but finds companionship with Lori Drysdale.

The play is full of the cleverly quotable: "Little girls with skirts shorter than their attention span" or in describing Mike's interaction with his minister, "the lettuce is eating the rabbit" or, in a lovely cameo as Otto's assistant, Pip Carter as Frank Pegg, with witty observations of the drinking and dining middle classes, a wine "fruity but not screaming fruit" In between scenes, time release photography gives us the impression of the red streaks of brake lights or the balletic moves of the building cranes in this well designed production with Otto's offices simple and elegant with a single sculpture and a leather chair which one cannot be sure whether it is to sit on or a piece of art to look at. The Prime Minister interviews Meredith in a room with a drum kit, an allusion to Tony Blair's electric guitar habit, and a portable gym leaving her only the gym to sit on.

Gethsemane is a cynical but witty look at the lack of idealism in British politics today. It's worth seeing for the ensemble performances and bon mots.

Written by David Hare
Directed by Howard Davies

Starring: Tamsin Greig, Nicola Walker, Stanley Townsend, Anthony Calf, Daniel Ryan, Jessica Raine
With: Pip Carter, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Adam James
Set Design: Bob Crowley
Costume Design: Fotini Dimou
Lighting: Mark Henderson
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Projection Design: Jon Driscoll and Gemma Carrington
Running time: Two hours 35 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 24th February 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd November matinee performance at Cottesloe Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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