Gethsemane: power, politics and piety pack a punch

Brighton Theatre Royal: Gethsemane by David Hare

Trenchant, clever writing with lines to relish, powerhouse performances from a quality cast, a striking and creative set – there was so much to enjoy about David Hare’s Gethsemane last night. And yet …

It was hard to put my finger on exactly what it was about Gethsemane that left me less  thoughtful than I expected. Hare’s insightful, at times scathing writing exposes the seamy underbelly of politics in today’s Britain – spin, management, damage limitation, hypocrisy and media manipulation.

Tamsin Greig is superb as the harrassed Home Secretary Meredith Guest – a mother who loves her wayward daughter Suzette (well portrayed by newcomer Jessica Raine) but is married to her job; agonising over her entry into politics to “make a difference” and despairing that “they hate us whatever we do”. Micro-managed by civil servant fixer Monique Toussaint (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), she is pulled deeper into trouble by her rebellious daughter’s attempts to get herself noticed.

Shady money man Otto Fallon (Stanley Townsend) is the cheeky chappy sifting everyone’s motives and finding them wanting, recruiting naive Whitehall greasy pole climber Mike Drysdale to his “fund-raising” operation, but failing to convince his pricipled wife Lori (Nicola Walker). Supported by suave assistant Frank Pegg (Pip Carter), he calls the tune that all but Lori must dance to.

Anthony Calf is Prime Minister Alec Beasley, sketched very strongly as Tony Blair with just a few details changed (he bashes away at a drum kit instead of the Blair Stratocaster) and talks firmly if vaguely about his religious faith.

Adam James revels in his role as Geoff Benzine, the Fleet Street hack preparing to break the story of the Home Secretary’s daughter’s shameful secret. When Meredith calls in Lori – Suzette’s former teacher and mentor – to try to straighten her out, the emotional depth of Hare’s writing starts to tell.

At times, it’s very funny, and there are some great lines:
“There’s only one safe place for a politician to live and that’s in ignorance …”
“It’s an organised hypocrisy and it’s called democracy …”
“The more sceptical the people become, the more devout are their leaders.”
“When journalists write about themselves, they finally write about someone they admire.”

Tamsin Greig’s opening to the second half, where she addresses the audience on the terrorist threat, outlining everything that she can’t tell us, and concluding “Sorry, but you’ll just have to trust us” is priceless. And the scene between her and the PM soon after is superbly played.

As for Gethsemane, referred to on a couple of occasions as “the dark night of the soul” – with many of the characters having wrestled with their callings and plans, is finally pinpointed as Suzette admonishes Lori “Jesus didn’t give up – you’ve missed the whole point of the story”.

Maybe the slight lack of engagement I felt at the end was down to the fact that none of the characters really attracted my sympathies – all were flawed but seemed trapped by the system. I won’t spoilt it by revealing the final scene, but a larger dose of hope would have helped. Human beings may be flawed, but not all are doomed to corruption and compromise – the redemption that lay beyond Gethsemane was only hinted at.

And these days, we can really do with being reminded of Easter too.

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