Have sympathy for me reader, for it’s started and it won’t stop until 7 May. We are having a national election, which means turning on the news is to hear about how the various parties interpret the same statistics entirely differently, each claiming a victory for themselves; incessant party political broadcasts with production values only slightly above a year seven video project; smug campaigning by politicians desperately trying to disguise their smugness in a series of cringey set pieces to convince us they are in touch with something called ‘the ordinary man’…it goes on, and on, and on…
I’m going to cheer myself up with a picture of Rik Mayall (works every time)as Alan B’Stard in The New Statesman, a brilliant piece of satire about Thatcher’s government:
“We hear an awful lot of leftie whingeing about NHS waiting lists. Well the answer’s simple. Shut down the health service. Result? No more waiting lists. You see, in the good old days, you were poor, you got ill and you died. And yet these days people seem to think they’ve got some sort of God-given right to be cured. And what is the result of this sloppy socialist thinking? More poor people. In contrast, my policies would eradicate poor people, thereby eliminating poverty. And they say that we Conservatives have no heart.”
Resistance is futile, so I’m embracing it this week by looking at writing about politics. Drama seemed to be the way to go, as there is much discussion at the moment about political theatre. James Graham’s play The Vote, is being broadcast live on election night, a real time drama about a polling station, making the link between theatre and politics explicit. It also means there’ll be something to watch other than endless exit poll speculation, for which I am truly grateful (I will be voting by the way, I just hate all the politicking).
Firstly, Stuff Happens by David Hare, which premiered at the National Theatre in 2004. A ‘recent history’ play, the title comes from Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld’s reaction on being told that there was looting in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s deposition. Watching a recent history play is a strange business, presenting events that will have had an immediate impact on our lives. The play considers the run-up to the Iraq War, and Hare does a great job of balancing factual information and dramatic action; public speeches and imagined private conversations. He looks at the main government players in the US and UK, exploring the political manoeuvring that occurs when no-one’s too sure exactly what the fight is:
“Rumsfeld. I liked what you said earlier, sir. A war on terror. That’s good. That’s vague.
Cheney. It’s good.
Rumsfeld. That way we can do anything.”
This obfuscation through meaningless rhetoric seems to be part of the politics of our age. In this instance, we know what it led to, and Stuff Happens could be a very bleak and cynical play. However, I think Hare encourages scepticism rather than cynicism when it comes to politics, using our knowledge of how events played out to deepen our understanding of why stuff happens, presenting the person behind the politician. There is heightened dramatic irony running through imagined private dialogue like this:
“Blair. I’ve been thinking. I’ve had this idea. I need…I think it might help if we had some sort of dossier. A kind of dossier.”
The knowledge that this ‘sexed-up’ ‘dodgy dossier’ would haunt Blair’s remaining time in office means the audience/reader witnesses this tentative suggestion with a sense of dread. It’s a tough job to make politics entertaining when you have a duty to those who have lived it to keep to the facts, but Hare balances it all beautifully, and creates an entertaining and thought-provoking piece that is responsible but not dogmatic. There are even opportunities for some wry humour, in this instance from the mouth of Secretary of State Colin Powell:
“There’s an element of hypocrisy, George. We were trading with the guy! Not long ago. People keep asking, how do we know he’s got weapons of mass destruction? How do we know? Because we’ve still got the receipts.”
Secondly, another (less) recent history play, Democracy by Michael Frayn, which also premiered at the National, in 2003. Set in West Berlin in 1969, it tells the story of Chancellor Willy Brandt, the first liberal-leaning Chancellor elected in Germany since before World War II, and his personal assistant Gunter Guillaume, who had begun life in East Germany, and was spying on the Chancellor for the Stasi. The playtext describes the setting as:
“a complex of levels an spaces; of desks and chairs; of files and papers; also of characters, who mostly remain around the periphery of the action when not actually involved in it, listening or unobtrusively involved in their work”
This captures the bureaucracy and paranoia of Cold War government, the environment in which Willy Brandt tried to effect change whilst being a bit…ineffectual.
“Brandt. Let’s talk about it. See if we can’t find a solution that keeps everyone happy.
Schmidt. You can’t keep everyone happy, Willy! Not if you’re running a government! We’ve got come to a decision!
Brandt. Thank you, Helmut. What do the rest of us feel…?”
These days Germany is such a powerful world leader, it can be easy to forget the fragility of its post-war state. Even in 1969 Brandt was faced with:
“Two Germanies, broken apart like the old shattered masonry. This is the material out of which we have to build the world we’re going to be living in tomorrow. This is the only material we possess – the two Germanies as they actually are. Riddled with doubts and suspicions on both sides.”
As the government tries to navigate a way forward, Brandt and Guillaume’s relationship adds to the complexity of the situation, as Guillaume’s Stasi handler observes:
“You and Willy. You’re like some old couple who’ve been married for forty years. He goes down so you go down. He comes up again and….”
Democracy is a subtle, intelligent study of people and politics in a time where nothing is straightforward. Brandt and Willy distrust each other and rely on each other in a symbiotic relationship that defies easy definition. It’s a play about politics but Democracy also succeeds on a very human level.
If the electioneering has left you feeling somewhat jaded about politics, let’s end by looking back to the politics of the past, noble statesmen concerning themselves with issues of great import…