English playwright, screenwriter and theatre and film director, Sir David Hare, 2014 (Photo by Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto via Getty Images)

Drop the agitprop

David Hare is an extraordinarily accomplished writer when he doesn’t revert to contemporary politics

Artillery Row

Say what you like about the playwright, screenwriter and director Sir David Hare – and many certainly have done over the years – but he is nothing if not prolific. In addition to having a new drama about a Conservative MP, Roadkill, appearing on TV later this year, starring Hugh Laurie, it was announced last weekend that he has written a monologue inspired by his recent experience of suffering from coronavirus. It is titled Beat the Devil and will be performed at the Bridge Theatre, directed by the artistic director Nicholas Hytner. It will star his frequent collaborator Ralph Fiennes as Hare – something of an upgrade, one might dare to suggest – and will consist both of a personal account of his illness and, predictably enough, a ‘scathing appraisal’ of the government’s response to the crisis. 

On the one hand, the prospect of Fiennes starring in a David Hare monologue under Hytner’s guidance at the Bridge is an appetising one, although its planned performance for a mere fortnight under socially distanced conditions mean that virtually nobody will get to see it live; presumably there will be some recorded or streaming performance. On the other, it is impossible to resist a weary sigh at the prospect of what Beat the Devil will involve. There will no doubt be some black-comic laughs early on at Hare’s self-deprecating account of the various indignities and depredations that he faced as a result of his illness, followed by some darker and more serious memento mori material as the playwright will presumably discuss his thoughts and feelings at the prospect of potential death. 

To describe Hare as not being a supporter of the Tories is like calling Harold Shipman over-invested in end-of-life care

He has already suggested what his line will be, saying in a recent interview that ‘I don’t think anyone who has not had it quite understands how extraordinarily unpredictable it is, not just on a daily, but almost an hourly basis. In other words, there’s no prediction from the experience of what one day of this disease is like, to know what the next day of this disease is going to be like. So, for me, the easiest way to write about that is simply to write a monologue called Beat the Devil.’ And in this monologue, as surely as night follows day, Hare will have a go at the government. 

One does not need to be a supporter of the current administration to sigh wearily at the prospect of Hare getting thoroughly stuck into their various failings and weaknesses. For a start, it is hardly a revelation to anyone that their response to the coronavirus outbreak was sloppily handled and clumsily expressed, and has continued to display mixed messaging and contradictory impulses on a day by day basis. There is undoubtedly a reckoning to be had, and it will make for a fascinating dramatic subject one day. But the fact remains that covid-19 and its malicious workings are still very much an evolving situation, rather than something safely confined to the past, and it seems presumptuous for it to be subjected to the full David Hare treatment while we all anxiously await the possibility of a second spike and further lockdown restrictions. One wonders if Hare is planning to introduce nightly revisions into the monologue, to keep pace with whatever failure there has been that day. It may be trickier for Fiennes to remember his speech, but it will at least manage to stay abreast of swiftly changing current affairs.

Yet to describe Hare as not being a supporter of the Conservative government is somewhat akin to calling Harold Shipman over-invested in his patients’ end-of-life care. He will denounce them at the slightest opportunity, as he has done for decades, and is particularly incensed by the current incumbents at this time of trouble. He certainly has a pithy turn of phrase, saying in an April interview that ‘To watch a weasel-worded parade of ministers shirking responsibility for their failures, and confecting non-apologies to the dead and dying, has seen British public life sink as low as I can remember in my entire lifetime’. He continued that ‘In return for lockdown, isolation, commercial disaster and social distancing, the British public deserves honesty… the government must own up to their mistakes, stop dodging and waffling and start to trust us with the truth.’ 

Hare has always been an implacable opponent of the Conservatives, and of Conservatism. It is not stretching the case to describe it as being less the hill that he has chosen to die on, and more a moral crusade that has permeated his life and work. From his first politically influenced plays, such as Knuckle and Teeth ‘n’ Smiles, to his more recent work such as I’m Not Running, Hare has focused, with some vitriol, on the inequalities and evils of contemporary society. Sometimes, as in Stuff Happens and The Permanent Way, the blame has been placed at the door of the Blair administration, but generally speaking it is the Tories who get it in the neck. As his enemies condemn him for being an out-of-touch champagne socialist, railing against the government from the comfort of a Hampstead mansion (where he is married to the fashion designer Nicole Farhi), he continues to write drama that places most of the blame on society’s failings on the government of the day. 

And now, he is warming up for a spectacular attack, if his recent comments are anything to go by. He recently said in an interview with Forbes that ‘In my country we have lived 45 years under the Conservatives. There’s very little fiction about it. I was looking to look at Conservatism now. I think there’s something new in the 21st century, which is that there is a sort of shamelessness in it. We have a prime minister that has been sacked twice for lying, yet he’s the prime minister. His principal advisor is Dominic Cummings, who has consistently lied about breaking the lockdown. Nobody’s really worried about that. And the idea of shame has disappeared from politics.’

Warming to his theme, Hare also compared British and American public life, saying ‘Your president said if he shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue, nobody would be much concerned. But this is new. There used to be something called disgrace, and when a politician did something wrong and was caught out doing something wrong, there was usually meant to be calamity, something was meant to follow. And now nothing follows. In the 21st century, getting caught out doing bad things doesn’t have the effect that it used to have. So I wanted to write about that, really, the change in politics whereby it’s okay to do things and you have a fair chance of getting away with them on the likelihood that you resemble the people who vote for you.’ 

This is an intriguing and rich dramatic idea – the concept of politics, and indeed public life, divested of accountability, whether moral or social – and one hopes that Beat the Devil will deal with this in a compelling and entertaining fashion. The lucky few who have tickets will probably hope to turn up at the Bridge not to be shouted at for the duration of the monologue, but Hare is far too able and intelligent a writer simply to produce sloganeering. While it would be more surprising and dramatically exciting if he could somehow come up with a piece that expressed a degree of empathy with the government and its tribulations, or even a black comic play that took delight in their evasions and lies – a kind of dramatic ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ – it is fairly safe to suggest that we know what we will get. And it will be staged extremely well indeed. 

The remarkable thing is that Hare, when he diverts his attention from the agitprop contemporary politics, is an extraordinarily accomplished writer, and probably Tom Stoppard’s only serious rival for the greatest living British dramatist. (The two, rather charmingly given their political differences, are good friends, bonding over a shared love of cricket.) South Downs, Hare’s 2011 companion piece to Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, is as good and touching a new play as I’ve seen in the past two decades, revolving around the misery of an isolated public schoolboy at a Sussex institution in the Sixties, frustrated from wearing his CND badge and misunderstood and bullied by his peers. His masterly early Nineties trilogy of contemporary British society, Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War, dealing with, respectively, the clergy, the legal system and a Kinnock-esque leader of Labour Party, should be revived considerably more often than it is. And Skylight, which was staged a few years ago with Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, abandons didacticism in favour of a beautifully observed and nuanced look at romantic relationships, which perhaps owes something to Stoppard’s great play The Real Thing. 

This is more than can be said for much of his film and TV work, which often comes across as strangely anonymous. His recent trilogy of TV films about MI5 officer Johnny Worricker, starring Nighy again as the jazz-loving spook, boasted a cast that most dramas would have killed for (Fiennes, Helena Bonham-Carter, Christopher Walken and Felicity Jones) but was mired in a curiously unmemorable and repetitive storyline about government corruption. His adapted screenplays, most notably The Hours and The Reader for Stephen Daldry, are perfectly competent (and he received Oscar nominations for both), but there is an anonymity to them that suggests that any decent playwright or screenwriter could have done a similar job. And his 2018 state-of-the-nation television series Collateral was an uneasy mixture of Hare’s chosen themes, including a scene of clerical dismissal straight from Racing Demon, and the generic demands of a BBC1 9pm thriller. 

One hopes that Roadkill, which will be premiering in the late autumn, will be more satisfying, even if one imagines that Hare’s portrayal of a Conservative MP will owe something to Laurie’s previous portrayal of a villainous arms dealer in The Night Manager. But before then, Ralph Fiennes will be taking to the Bridge, full of righteous anger, to perform a monologue that should, whatever its strengths and weaknesses, be little less than the quintessence of its creator. Whatever one’s feelings about David Hare’s work, it is good news that he has recovered from his illness and is able to write once more, even if he has taken the opportunity to make a dig at his fellow sufferer, the Prime Minister: he commented, perhaps with an allusion to the connections between the body personal and the body politic, ‘He still looks ill!’

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