Hansard at the National Theatre: Well Acted but Predictable

There’s little point in trying to make a relevant political joke to open this review of Simon Woods’s debut play Hansard at the National Theatre. God knows what will happen tomorrow or the day after to painfully date my humour (if it ever could be called that in the first place). 

And yet, rather dated is just what this play is. In these troubled political times it’s fun to spend 90 minutes laughing at the foibles of an upper class, white male politician and witness him spar with his wife. Robin Hesketh is a minor cabinet member in Thatcher’s government and has returned home to his Cotswolds home to his wife, Diana. Accusations of all sorts fly and as the ice-queen wife melts and the pompous politician deflate we learn their own true feelings of remorse and regret.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set, with an Aga and large dining table, feels amazing empty. It is certainly a country kitchen but cream and cold. No wonder Diana has taken to drinking to help the lonely nights pass by, but it is unsurprising that Robin also makes a piece of toast upon his arrival.  

Though set in 1988 when Thatcher’s government passed the Local Government Act, which prohibited the education of homosexuality, Woods has ensured the play is full of references and jokes for audiences today: “The insatiable desire of the people of this country”, it is suggested, is “to be fucked by an Old Etonian.” Cue raucous laughter.  

If only Woods wasn’t quite so heavy handed throughout the entire piece. From Oscar Wilde to Game of Thrones, verbal sparring with tight one-liners and sardonic responses make for great drama, but it hasn’t quite got the same power here. Jokes about the irrelevancy of the theatre likewise land and I think we can all recognised the “well-dressed unhappiness” many politicians today seem to sport.   

I must give way to the honourable reviewers who have been quicker than myself in uploading their observations and seen the similarities between Woods’ play and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But where Albee takes a painfully long time to unravel the psychosis of his characters, this is a tight 90 minutes that flies by no less due to the performances from Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings.

Director Simon Godwin touchingly ensures both actors never come into contact with each other until at the end when Robin zips up Diana’s dress to prepare for lunch. Even then, this is Diana putting on her shell, the persona of the supportive wife. Intimacy, one feels, is no longer part of their life. But Duncan’s withering strength and Jennings’s cynicism, crafted from years as a politician, never let up and their performances relish in the play’s anger.   

The parallels between the cruel Thatcherite government and today are duly noted, Mr Speaker.Did I snigger, surrounded by my fellow 800 audience members in the Lyttleton theatre at the jokes made at the expense of the past and present Conservative party? Of course, they were funny. Was I touched by the play’s quiet conclusion? Yes. But let the record show the play’s accomplishments go no further.


Hansard is at the National Theatre until 25th November but it will be screened as part of NT Live on 7th November.

Photograph credit: Catherine Ashmore. 

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL. @AntWalker_Cook

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