Search This Blog

Friday 22 July 2011

Loyalty, play by Sarah Helm, Hampstead Theatre, not quite 3* out of 5

Laura is a journalist for the Independent Newspaper. She is the partner of Nick, Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair in the months leading up to the Iraq War in 2003. They have 2 children and a Polish nanny.

The play enacts Laura's reminiscences of the period leading up to the Iraq War to the point when the post-Iraq-war report by the UN inspectors is issued which confirmed that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. Most of the play is set in Nick and Laura's bedroom, a sex-free zone, appropriately equipped with telephones, a line-encryption device for secure phone calls and panic buttons to ward off would-be assassins. Contrary to the Notting Hill set, Laura and Nick live in Stockwell. Nick's boss, Tony Blair, is amazed that anyone closely associated with his government would choose to live in a downscale area of London whose existence he is only dimly aware off. “The Oval” cricket ground is the nearest landmark significant enough to have entered Blair's consciousness. The possibility that Blair might be feigning geographical ignorance in order to wind his Chief of Staff up with a bit of banter, does not seem to enter Laura's mind.

The deal between Nick and Laura is that Nick tells her everything that goes on in his job and she can listen in to all conversations. In return, she will not write about any of these topics nor leak any sensitive information. As a result, we the audience, find out through Laura's ears and eyes about the conversations taking place between Tony Blair, George Bush, Rupert Murdoch and other protagonists in the period leading up to the Iraq War.

The tension in the play is about, where the loyalties of the main characters and especially Nick lie, as the UK is being “cheated” into participating in an Iraq War by the Americans. Nick is smart and somewhat conflicted. Tony Blair is a ruthless, charismatic politician with the ability to get right-thinking leftish, middle class intellectual party-members to do what he wants in order to please him. These individuals think that at the last moment he might decide not go to war with Iraq or, even better, persuade the Americans not to do so either. Failing that, he will at least finally address a cause of the great British Foreign policy frustration, something on might describe as the penis envy of British foreign policy makers: in return for UK support in Iraq, he will get the Americans severely downgrade their very special relationship with the Sate of Israel below the level of their special relationship with the United Kingdom. The expectation is that the US government will put pressure on Israel to make significant concessions to the Palestinians. This is particularly important to Laura who was Jerusalem correspondent for her paper once and worked closely with a Palestinian camera-man there who during the Iraq War has taken an assignment with the Reuters news agency in Iraq.
Sara Helm's play Loyalty is based on her actual experiences, as the life partner to David Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff. She presents it to us as a piece of fiction based around actually identified real characters. Thus, it appears that she intends for this play to be understood as largely factual. A big problem with this is that since it is also presented as fictional, she does not engage her responsibility for its factual content. Nevertheless, the main interest of this play for the audience is that its author has been through the experience in real life.

Unfortunately, as a play, its quality is slightly below the BBC drama department's efforts to depict significant recent political events such as the expenses scandal in the UK Parliament. For people who are the target group of news papers such as the Independent, Guardian and Observer, this play confirms the views they mostly hold about Blair, Bush, Murdoch and themselves, as well as their thoughts about what went on in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Other than Laura, Nick and their Polish nanny, who at one stage half-jestingly draws a parallel between Blair and Hitler, the characters of the play are stereotypes with no inner life, no inner conflicts and not many ideas. We learn nothing about them, except that they are exactly like they have been depicted by their political opponents. What is more interesting to see is how a journalist and a senior civil servant try to live as a couple given their largely incompatible responsibilities. Laura and Nick and the way their relationship survives the Iraq War is what is best about the content of this play. The set and production for Loyalty are of good quality and the acting performances very competent.

As a play, Loyalty suffers from its one-sided political stand-point: good is good and evil is evil and sometimes the twain shall speak to each other on the phone. Only Nick is more complex: he is good, but as a good civil servant he must also sit on the fence and help evil to commit its evil deeds, in the hope that evil will suddenly turn good and live happily ever after.  The stereotyping of decision makers such as Blair and Bush raises the question whether the theatre is a suitable medium for “faction” of this type. 

Having all your expectations and opinions confirmed does not really make for great theatre. Compared to what other theatres in London have been able to achieve with new writing talent and political subjects (Tricycle, Royal Court, Arcola and Finborough to name a few) “Loyalty” at the Hampstead Theatre is a rather disappointing experience.

Patrick Baladi
Stephen Critchlow
Anna Koval
Lloyd Owen
Maxine Peake
Michael Simkins
Colin Stinton

Creative Team:
Writer: Sarah Helm
Director: Edward Hall
Designer: Francis O'Connor
Lighting: Ben Ormerod
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Casting: Gabrielle Dawes

No comments:

Post a Comment