Theatre Review: Hansard (National Theatre, London) ★★★★★

The simmering rage in a marriage has been the source of endless amounts of great theatre. Witty, sideways barbs that cut in ways only a lover would know, deflections and parries from an opponent who can predict your every move. Simon Woods’ debut play Hansard (named after the published record of parliamentary debates), has all that and more lurking underneath the surface. It is an uninterrupted 90 minutes of marital flaying beneath the veneer of English conversation.

Set on a summer’s morning in 1988, a Conservative politician Robin Hesketh (Alex Jennings) returns to his country home to find his garden decimated by foxes and his wife Diana (Lindsay Duncan) laying in wait. She’s a liberal, married to a man passing laws that will tear into the fabric of British society. As she attacks his voting record, it’s clear there is more to be said.

There’s a real joy walking into the theatre knowing absolutely nothing about the show you’re about to see. The title, Hansard, indicates a political story, but beyond that a new play by a new playwright with a pair of Britain’s theatrical heavy-weights on stage could still be hit or miss. Sitting down and watching the story unfold, without any preconceptions of the subject matter, made Hansard an entertaining and rewarding ride. Observing a single conversation as it evolves over an hour and a half, where both husband and wife are trying to score hits and drive the conversation, had all the laughs, drama and heartbreak of a whole season of the best TV drama.

The story reveals itself to revolve around a singular piece of historically awful legislation (I won’t mention what it is, but it’s a minor spoiler and I feel my enjoyment of the play was enhanced by not knowing. If you want to know, it’s mentioned in this profile of the playwright). Hesketh has publicly stood up for legislation that has a profound impact on the tenuous relationship he has with his wife.

While the script is littered with brilliant lines and a rhythm that keeps you engaged, it’s the performances that really sing on the stage. Jennings (a veteran of every plumby British TV show and film from The Crown and Victoria to Russell T Davies’ recent A Very English Scandal) is tasked with taking the stereotype of every left-wing theatregoer’s nightmares – an Etonian Tory politician – and making him sympathetic. Jennings succeeds, imbuing the character with a level of humanity and intelligence behind the quintessential privilege. Meanwhile Lindsay Duncan’s Diana is a deep well of pain and anger, wrapped in a silk nightgown. She is full of contradictions and regrets (and alcohol), all held in tight control as she manoeuvres around the room. These performers mine the script for observational humour and verbal weaponry.

Playwright Simon Woods is the kind of person who, on paper, you either want to murder or to become. An Oxford grad (yes, an Etonian himself), a former actor, handsome, married to designer Christopher Bailey – and now his debut play landing directly on the stage of the National Theatre. If Hansard weren’t this good, there would be screams of “white privilege” and the “old boys club” – I’m sure there will be regardless. Woods may be a product of the system he’s skewering here, but that does give it more nuance than I had expected. The text plays with the contemporary audience as much as with its characters.

As director Simon Godwin‘s last play at the National for the foreseeable future (he’s leaving to take the reigns of Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company), it is frankly a must-see. It may not have the blockbuster scale of The Lehman Trilogy or Man And Superman, but in stripping away the theatrics and relying solely on two actors and the text, it demonstrates the art of direction.

Exiting the theatre, there were smiles and approving mutterings from the audience (that’s the British version of a standing ovation), and a line of people heading to the NT Bookshop to buy the playtext. Hansard may not delve into the darkness of plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but it hits the middle-class National Theatre audience in exactly the right place.

Hansard is playing at the National Theatre, London until 25th November 2019. Tickets are available from the National Theatre website. It will be broadcast to UK cinemas via NTLive on 7th November

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