Theatre Review: Hansard – MP Promises, Or Caustic In The Cotswolds

August 13, 2022

 

By BRUCE DENNILL

Hansard / Directed by Robert Whitehead / Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg

 

This play’s title refers to the official record of debates in the British parliament, and it’s a piece in which much of the dialogue – and that’s all there is; two people talking to, at or over each other – is about politics. It’s also English politics, and English politics that played out in the 1980s. So how does it fit here, in South Africa, 40 years later?

Explaining all the layers of the full answer to that would mean giving away some important spoilers, but what can be said is that playwright Simon Woods has managed to mine the layers of the relationship between his characters for both meaning and familiarity, and because they are both intelligent, educated, opinionated people, there is plenty of room for both humour (almost always tar-black) and an awareness of how to inflict eviscerating pain.

Robin Hesketh (Graham Hopkins) is a Tory MP who works mostly in London. His wife Diana (Fiona Ramsay) stays at home in the couple’s house in the Cotswolds. The whole of Hansard takes place one Saturday morning after Robin has come home and found Diana still in her dressing gown at 11am. From the off, there is a thread of bitterness in their interactions, which makes it difficult to immediately gel with any of the perspectives they present. Each makes good, eloquent points, but generally from a place of well-developed entitlement (particularly in Robin’s case), and even when it’s possible to sense that there’s a kernel of something important in the middle of some hilariously uncomfortable verbal sparring, you don’t want to necessarily invest too heavily in that truth or thoughtfulness when it seems like the Heskeths are just going to butt heads until the end of the play.

Then, though, Woods injects some depth into the narrative, first in the inclusion of some discussion about a bill that deals with some sensitive gender issues (sadly, 40 years have not seen much progress in establishment sensitivity there), and then, subtly, in how Robin and Diana have been personally – not professionally or ideologically – affected by the real-life playing out of those issues.

The pacing of the piece helps with this slightly unbalanced structure (with revelations gathering at the end). Woods’ dialogue is quick and clean and while much of the humour literally makes you laugh out loud, it also, and often simultaneously, makes you feel distinctly uncomfortable. That shrewd craftsmanship, added to the Robert Whitehead’s taut direction and the  excellence of the performances of both Hopkins and Ramsay, both seemingly having a ball playing off the other as their characters stab and parry, gives Hansard a consistency of tone that means it always engages the audience.

The play is worth seeing for its entertainment value alone, but it also has much to say about societal issues that remain in the spotlight today.

 

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