Review – Gesthemane – National Theatre

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Last night by uncle and I took advantage of the 10 pound day seats offer and were squeezed into a performance of David Hare’s new play, Gesthemane. It was quite a challenge to get these days seats, however, as there were already 8 people in line at 8:30 and then another 30 in line when the box office opened an hour later! So I feel my uncle actually worked to get these supposedly cheap tickets, but given that the show is sold out until February, it was the only way to see it at all and both of us were quite interested in checking out the latest by this playwright. (Okay, I admit, I’ve actually never seen anything by him before, but I thought that, given how prolifically he writes and how very many of his shows get produced, there was probably something there worth taking note of.)

The show was billed as being about politics and the “loss of idealism,” but it seemed to be to be a direct blast right at the Labour government that is really hitting the target now that the economy has tanked. “How long can this [incompetence/bullshit] continue?” “As long as the money does,” said two characters, and I had myself quite the laugh in this Last Action Hero – like moment of theatrical prescience. The story is something about a minister (Meredith Guest, played by Tamsin Greig) who is struggling because of the hijinks of her husband (financial) and her teenaged daughter (sexual), along with a parallel story of the party fix-it man, Otto Fallon (played by Stanley Townsend) who fundraises and manages things behind the scenes. In a bid for attention, the daughter Suzette (Jessica Raine, positively brilliant) decides to spill some dirt about Otto to the tabloids, putting her mother’s political career in jeopardy.

While this “story” is of some little interest, the play is more sharply focused on the conflicts between the various characters, many of whom provide Shavian speeches that pepper the ends of scenes. The characters argue about what they value (Minister Guest: more concerned with the party or her family?), who they trust (Prime Minister Beasley: in the pocket of his money man, or focused on his political allies?), and the sanctity of personal life versus fame (journalist Geoff Benzine – he chooses fame and notoriety). As the lights come down, they address us on topics as varied as religion (are political leaders more naturally zealots), keeping state secrets (you must trust that we as politicians are looking out for your best interests – and I do mean trust, blindly!) and proper party fare (my personal favorite – why not to serve neither chicken or salmon sandwiches, ever).

I continually felt during the speeches like I was being addressed by the playwright himself, and, though I mostly found myself agreeing with his points (as also delivered by Nicola Walker as disillusioned school teacher Lori Drysdale), the fact of the matter was that these screeds were already feeling like they were dated by the current economic collapse. They are already talking about the good old days, when the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer, but at least there were some jobs out there. To be honest, I would have preferred to have seen a play that was a bit less topical and a little more long lasting, something that would be a permanent addition to the canon rather than a flash in the pan only interesting as long as the issues it cares about are current. Suzette’s desperate angling for her mother’s attention? Timeless (and brilliantly acted to boot). Meredith’s fight for her career with her former friend, Beasley? Not as razor sharp as David Frost taking on Nixon, but a good depiction of politicians under pressure nonetheless. (This scene was rather sadly held back by Anthony Calf’s performance – he never looked to me like anything but an actor on stage pretending to be a prime minister.) But this wasn’t enough to make up for the rest of the play, which had dramatic tension but not enough drama and certainly not more than two characters that were worth paying attention to. It’s a shame, really, but maybe we’ll get lucky and next time Mr. Hare can get on with a good family feud a la August, Osage County and save the speeches for his personal appearances.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, December 1st, 2008.)

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4 Responses to “Review – Gesthemane – National Theatre”

  1. Review - Three Days of Rain - Apollo Theatre « Webcowgirl’s Theatre Reviews Says:

    […] had been set so low in the first act. Overall, though, the play suffered from the same mistakes as Gesthemane – an excess of focus on ideas at the expense of creating an interesting show, in which characters […]

  2. Review - Over There - Royal Court Theatre « Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] preachy/self-loving or just generally lame due to unimpressive plot and characterization (”Gesthemane“). This, however, not only had twins, but (per the story) was actually more about how the […]

  3. Webcowgirl’s review of London theater 2008 « Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] straight out of the O’Neill bag of tricks, how fresh they seemed. Oddly, both it and “Gesthemane” seemed to be critiques of a world gone rotten through bad politics (this rot seeming to […]

  4. Review – Earthquakes in London – National Theatre « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] managed to walk this tightrope generally quite well; Bartlett has unfortunately fallen prey to the David Hare syndrome: too in love with beating the audience about the head with his Really Important Point to […]

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