The trouble with writing for theatre, I once had explained to me, is that, the performance over, the public forgets the play’s existence until its rediscovery, or indefinitely. A television screening raises greater hope of not being forgotten, but most of us need a reason for watching this or that. David Hare’s recent trilogy for BBC 2 is a case in point. If you missed it, you missed the pleasure of sharp dialogue and fine casting. But the real impetus was the content, worth a second thought by anyone living in, or interested in, the United Kingdom. Where did Britain go in the last fifteen years? ‘Our country’, politicians have more recently taken to calling it, when not just throwing in the towel and styling it ‘broken’. ‘New Labour stole my country,’ I answered a question about patriotism a few years ago. David Hare also thinks public life has sunk into a moral quagmire. It’s not really a party political point. Any government might have succumbed to post-Cold-war freedoms to shift money round the globe while ruthlessly flouting standards that the West used at least to pay lip service to, to maintain the moral upper hand. Maybe it’s not a great era to be patriotic anywhere in Europe. Look at the French, the Italians, the Greeks; struggling to defend their interests as citizens, they can hardly be delighted with the governments, and the state apparatuses, that landed them in the mess. Corruption is the worm in the patriotic bud. The only genuinely inspirited flag-waving I’ve seen for years has been in recent weeks amongst the ethnic Russian population in Crimea, and who would want that in the West? Still there are many people in the country where I’ve lived most of my life, who, I suspect, feel as David Hare does, that there’s no longer a Britain to love, just rudeness and a fight over money.
Bring on Johnny Warricker, MI5 maverick, a character it will be forever hard to separate from the charming, unflappable, thoughtful, well-mannered Englishman whom Bill Nighy brought to the screen in spring 2014. You could rename in your head each of Hare’s three plays in recently topical terms: for Page Eight think ‘dodgy dossier’, for Turks and Caicos reflect on profiteering from the ‘war on terror’, for Salting the Battlefield see the second, international, career of Tony Blair. The Blair character, Prime Minister Alec Beasley, is Warricker’s ultimate adversary. He’s also Hare’s scapegoat. More has gone wrong with Britain than Blair can be held to account for. But Beasley is smooth, wealthy and glib, not the most promising exterior for a morally adequate leader of his country. He’s also dangerous, so hugely empowered. So the anti-factions form, in former and present members of the security service, and the tripartite plot gets underway. There’s an Israeli cover-up of its soldiers’ murder of an English protester in the West Bank, and there’s an ambitious woman politician whose husband gets arraigned on embarrassing corruption charges in another country. There are the lifestyles of the global super-rich which look all the more obscene when they holiday on the island of a people whose ordinary, modest lives are beyond their imagination. Hare is a moralist, and there’s a danger that he’ll paint a picture of the world as simplistic as an old Marxist telling us that all workers are good and all capitalists bad. In Hare’s worldview minorities, faraway non-white communities, victims of big money and big power, step in for the innocent, exploited working class of yesteryear. But there’s much truth in what he shows, and he’s an artist of enough ability to get away with it, and be entertaining into the bargain.
The art is in the dialogue. No point in trying to reproduce fragments here, but worth pausing to reflect on the quality of the relationships between people Hare wants us to like. They smile, they’re intuitive, they’re passionate, but never in that privately hysterical way the average good Brit seems to be these days: the creeping equivalent of the transatlantic big baby trying to lead a grown-up life and blabbing all the while, hugging an old photograph or a teddy bear. Nighy still has a version of the stiff upper lip, but he’s self-aware and not repressed on behalf of an unself-questioning Empire. In the Worricker role he speaks almost exaggeratedly slowly, enunciating carefully that language called English that we used to love, and which is now routinely mangled. (The whole cast enunciated beautifully, in fact, under Hare’s direction.) From Gemma Arterton’s Nancy Pierpan to Helena Bonham Carter’s Margot Tyrrell, taking in Winona Ryder’s Melanie Fall and Olivia Williams as the editor of the Independent, these women don’t weep; they don’t even go wobbly. Hare’s women, I’d even say, are a salute to the twenty-first century, something gone right, somewhere, choice specimens of course, but chosen on merit by a man who appreciates these actresses in the roles he has written for them. I will call them actresses here. It’s about a vision of what women can be, in their relations with men and their dealings with the world; and although Arterton has a tendency to simper in any role, and one would wish Bonham Carter to drop the head-on-one-side and eye-rolling, to tell her that an ironic, world-weary version of ‘look at little me’ can be just as irritating as the real thing, still these women are terrific. Ryder as one who has been abused and has problems treads a fine line between aspects of her own life and playing a part. Williams is cool, super-intelligent and ever so slightly suffering for it, just what I always admire her for. Saskia Reeves is a tough, attractive Home Secretary, very much her own woman, and corruptible. MI5 is headed by a woman who outwits them all, men, women, money and power combined.
But just a bit more about Johnny W. In a world where Gladstone, that great nineteenth-century hero of English social reform, and of a socialistic conscience, has become Gladstone International Finance, a secretive private equity company, Johnny wonders what happened to the idea of shame. Margot, in some ways the least distinctive of the women characters because conceived as Johnny’s mirror image, answers that it went the way of honour. Still we take the point – a point that leads back, as does every point in the story, to the corruption of recent political leadership. Johnny and Margot are quiet romantics. Both, at the same time at opposite points across the world are reading Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. Johnny quietly yearns to be a patriot, or Hare does, as the camera lingers over red postboxes and the unchanged message inside the British passport. Turks and Caicos, technically British soil, is a tribute to the good legacy of the Commonwealth. One of the gin-soaked expats sitting around in a beach hotel there, a hotel he has recently bought, with money from building a worldwide network of detention centres for the US, calls Johnny ‘an English fairy cop’. Pretty much right, says our hero, only British, not English. Actually I’m conflating two short exchanges here, in the second of which it’s that word ‘fairy’ that matters. Intended as a slight on Warricker’s masculinity, it’s actually a description of his role in the triology, to solve the problems of good people. He’s a fairy godfather. The plotting lets him succeed, although not in his own interest.
The mood of this set of plays is really the clue. It’s about what was once the patriotism behind ‘I vow to Thee my country’, now becoming the jazz of a contemporary uprooted life, as the heartrending old certainties give way to a moody, diverting improvisation and a patriotic-emotional life of anti-climax. It’s Billy Holiday, not Holst, and not Elgar. It’s a cool version of Nietzsche’s science of joy that thrusts Edwardian England into the distant past. More removed from those times by far than Le Carre’s Smiley, Warricker is not a tragic figure, just morally becalmed. Hare recalls the spook’s almost forgotten university interest in theology, only to concede it was not a way out, because a belief in God was impossible.
These moral difficulties are also the difficulties of pitch the would-be committed playwright faces. Style is everything these days, and Warricker can hardly be said not to do style alluringly, with his rangy figure and raffishly incorrect cigarette. Yet Hare still makes Warricker’s style speak for courtesy, and kindness and conscience. After the last of the three plays is over, I’d bet on a gorgeous affair with that intransigent editor of the Independent who, like the Winona Ryder character, has scarlet soles beneath her powerwoman black patent heels, and dear Johnny. In 2014 we need these artistic consolations.