I’m Not Running at the Lyttelton Theatre: ‘its uneasy sensibility is at least a product of its time’
Tymek Woodham reviews this new play by David Hare, I’m Not Running, set against turbulent political times.
Fear of complicity is the name of the game in David Hare’s new play—and it’s a worthy theme for a contemporary moment marked by shifting institutional allegiances and uneasy realignments of the political map. In a time defined by the imperative to choose sides, I’m Not Running wobbles and wavers, unsure whether its function is an incisive political broadside or an equivocal shrug. As a result, Hare gives us the two hours of prevarication we deserve.
Historically, David Hare has had a particular talent for taking a single conflict within the inner machinations of the Labour Party and expanding it into much grander reflections on morality, selfhood and public life. While Gethsemane (2008) had at its core the cash-for-honours scandals of New Labour, The Absence of War (1993) was a prescient and trailblazing lampoon of spin and the role of the media in the production of political personalities. This time round, Hare sets his gaze on the recent influx of new blood into the Party structure, and questions whether the constrictive and tired apparatuses of the past can be revivified without corrupting those who seek to save it.
Meet Pauline Gibson, an Independent, single-issue campaigner, five or so years into her tenure as an MP representing the constituency of Corby (ahem hem). The play opens with a gaggle of press officers demanding to know whether she plans to run for the Labour leadership—a party of which she is not, as yet, a member. Buttressed by popular support but hampered by her troubled romantic history with the other favoured leadership contender, Jack Gould, we watch Gibson oscillate between superwoke declarations of independent thought and the tired acknowledgment of her destiny propelling her ineluctably towards the party machine.
At the heart of the show are the numerous back-and-forths between Pauline and her opposite, played by Siân Brooke and Alex Hassell, respectively. Brooke for her part demonstrates tremendous range, and, through her adept modulations in gesture, tone and style, single-handedly saves a character who in less capable hands would be a bloodless mouthpiece for whatever political positions Hare deems to be right-on. All of this is rather ironic seeing as one of Hare’s big targets this time around is ‘positioning’—the reduction of political debate to the careful policing of the most virtuous party line.
Clearly the author protests too much, as at no point during the production did I feel any real ambiguity between the yeah-you-tell-’em moments and the oh-my-god-what-an-arsehole lampoons. Which is not so much a bad thing in and of itself—Hassell pulls a blinder in bringing to life the New Labour, smarmy estate agent archetype of Jack Gould—modelled somewhere between Tony Blair and Hilary Benn—and is throughout the play slowly undermined as a self-serving, ideologically vacuous and emotionally manipulative husk of a man. Again, such a zero-sum dichotomy between Pauline and Jack wouldn’t necessarily be a bad or unentertaining thing, if it wasn’t for the play’s weird self-awareness about it: these characters should be complex and multi-layered, but they just never get round to it.
Still, for all the play’s faults, its uneasy sensibility is at least a product of its time. Perhaps one of the most apt yet unspoken undercurrents in the work is the revelations of institutional complicity made apparent by the rceent #metoo movement. It says a lot that the central metaphor personalising I’m Not Running’s conflict between the neoliberal order and the resurgence of left populism is a borderline abusive relationship. At stake in Pauline’s decision over whether or not to join the Labour Party is not just her political position—it’s being put under institutional control of someone who both desires and despises her. Furthermore, Pauline is not just running from the Party but also from the memory of her abusive parents. A tense flashback shows us a pre-university Pauline grimacing as her now-alcoholic baby-boomer mother, harrowingly portrayed by Liza Sadovy, justifies her husband’s violent behaviour as the natural to’s and fro’s of passion. What Pauline really fears is this: to be so consumed by a political alignment that her voice becomes effectively complicit in its self-mutilation.
It’s one of the great ironies of our time that as the Left recognises the need to occupy and reclaim actual seats of power, those same seats seem less and less redeemable from the toxic accretions of historical injustice. I’m Not Running is the sound of the Left coming to terms with the fact that politics has always been less about having a position than it is about forming alliances. In this brave new world, we’re all going to be smeared by the smudgy brushstrokes of complicity and institutional cowardice to some degree or other—to which Hare responds not with a bang, but with a whimper.
I’m Not Running is at the Lyttelton Theatre in rep until the 31st January, 2019 and on the same night will be broadcast by the National Theatre Live scheme.
Photograph: Mark Douet