by Carol Rocamora
“Democracy—it works, if we didn’t have to rely on people.”
These are some of the many wise words and witticisms uttered in This House, James Graham’s timely, lively, and insightful play now streaming on NT Live on YouTube. Set in the corridors and back rooms of Westminster, it dramatizes the political turmoil within the British Parliament from 1974-79, when the Labour Party struggled to maintain power under fierce opposition from the Conservative Party (aka the “Tories”).
Sound dry and factual? Absolutely not. On the contrary, thanks to Graham’s brilliant script and director Jeremy Herrin’s fabulously choreographed production, the scenes of infighting and backstabbing behind closed doors are colorful, enlightening, and entertaining, often to the point of farcical.
Set in the offices of the Labour and Conservative Chief Whips, the story follows the leadership of both parties as they navigate the treacherous waters of competition under two Labour Prime Ministers (Harold Wilson, 1974-76, and James Callaghan, 1976-79). It’s a turbulent time (that’s why Graham chose it), beginning with a “hung parliament,” then a “slender majority,” and finally a defeat in the polls that ushered in the era of Conservative Margaret Thatcher. Lots of history happened during that time—like the 1975 referendum of membership in the European Union, and so on. Still, Graham’s focus is on the infighting, and therein lies the high drama of the piece as well as the significant history lesson he’s offering. (This House enjoyed two sold-out, critically acclaimed runs at the National Theatre before transferring to the West End in 2016.)
The Whips’ jobs (as their titles suggest) is to “whip” the members of their respective parties to vote as a body. After all, voting is a matter of party life and death. You’ll watch Whips dragging their critically ill members from their hospital beds and into the halls of Parliament on stretchers to vote. You’ll watch a female Member of Parliament (MP) nurse her baby in the corner of a Whip Office (to her colleagues’ dismay), so she is present for the tally. You’ll witness the fake drowning/suicide of Labour’s John Stonehouse—one of Herrin’s most spectacular staged moments, when an actor strips bare and drowns in a huge white, undulating sheet held by four other members, representing the ocean off Miami. You’ll marvel at a hilarious wrestling match over a ceremonial mace (a giant, jeweled, javelin-sized object) that symbolizes Parliamentary order. You’ll watch as Members cheat on the tradition of “pairing,” a tacit agreement between both parties that if a member of one party is absent for a vote, a member of the other party drops out.
Director Herrin makes splendid use of the sweeping Olivier space. On Rae Smith’s multipurpose set, scenes segue fluidly from one Whip office to another, then to a barber shop, a shooting range, the Miami shore, and even in front of Big Ben, symbol of British tradition. (The clock had never stopped—not even, during the bombings of World War II—not until the mid-70s, when this play takes place.)
Herrin turns a history play into an entertainment spectacle (brilliantly videotaped for live-streaming). While a “cool” four-piece band plays jazz and rock, actors enter the theatre from the lobby, passing down the aisle between audience members and onto the stage. Herrin choreographs his huge company in stylized movement during the scene changes, and there are several songs, including one offered by Phil Daniels, the terrific actor who plays Bob Mellish, the cockney-accented Chief Labour Whip. There are excellent performances by Michael Cocks, as Mellish’s bumbling, sympathetic successor. Playing the toffee-nosed Tories, there’s the excellent Julian Wadham as Humphrey Atkins, Chief Labour Whip, and Charles Edwards as Jack Weatherill, the sleek Deputy Labour Whip.
Ultimately, Graham’s astute play raises a larger question, penetrating to the heart of the British Parliamentary model itself. Does a two-party system, constantly at war, really work? Isn’t it time for a functional alliance, moving forward? “What a rotten bloody system this!” says one member, while another rebuts: “It’s one of the few things this country has manufactured and exported that hasn’t been sent back.”
That brings this play right into the present, and our own current predicament, doesn’t it? “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” warned Abraham Lincoln in 1858. Haven’t we learned our history lessons yet?
This House by James Graham, directed by Jeremy Herrin, a Royal National Theatre Production (2013), live-streaming on YouTube through June 4 at https://youtu.be/6vsSHyjEMrg
Photos: Johan Persson