For the past eight years, James Graham has made a name for himself as a playwright who draws parallels (and makes distinctions) from UK history with the here and now. Of all his notable successes, perhaps his most well-known play is the political drama This House. First performed at the National Theatre in 2012, the play shows how precarious the ‘stability’ of any government is (especially in the UK) on a day-to-day basis.
Directed by Jeremy Herrin, This House takes place between 1974-1979, when Labour’s Harold Wilson returned for a second tenure as Prime Minister. While the Labour Party won the majority of the seats, this number wasn’t more than those obtained by the Conservative Party AND the smaller political institutions outside of the partisan system, which resulted in a hung parliament. But rather than focus on the leaders of the respective political parties, the onus of the play is on the Party ‘whips’ – the officials who ensure that their fellow political party legislators attend voting sessions and vote according to their party’s official policy.
The play begins with ‘day one’ after the 1974 election, when the Members of Parliament (MPs) of the newly elected government and ‘the opposition’ move to the opposite ends of Westminster Palace. As ‘chief whip’ for Labour, Bob Mellish (Phil Daniels) is boisterous and delighted at being part of the incumbent government. His deputy, Walter Harrison (Reece Dinsdale) is very much a ‘people’ person – cajoling the other Labour MPs to attend voting sessions and “opening the channels” of communication with the Conservative ‘whips’ when ‘pairing’ (when both parties verbally agree to remove one or more of their MPs from a voting session, because they can’t physically attend) is ‘necessary’. Also among the Labour ‘whips’ are Joe Harper (David Hounslow) – a seasoned MP who has a hard time adapting to unprecedented developments; Michael Cocks (Vincent Franklin) – another veteran who feels things deeply, but often lacks the wherewithal to express himself; plus Ann Taylor (Lauren O’Neil) – the newest addition and conspicious by being the only woman in this traditionally all-male environment.
Their opposition counterparts, Humphrey Atkins (Julian Wadham), Jack Weatherill (Charles Edwards) and Fred Silvester (Ed Hughes) are ‘cut from a very different cloth’ from Mellish & Co., though the Tories’ ‘refined’ vernacular belies the fact they’re doing everything in their power to trigger a ‘no confidence’ vote in the government… Still, we see examples of when both sets of ‘whips’ have a grudging respect for each other – especially between Weatherill and Harrison – who can see beyond political tribalism. This is something unthinkable in this day and age.
So what is the message of the play? There are many different threads, but one of the most important is the nature of British democracy itself. With the centuries-old informal practice of ‘pairing’ still in practice, there is an element of incongruity with the old-fashioned ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ in public, while MPs are respectively doing their damnedest to thwart the other side ‘making ‘progress’.
While not the primary focus of This House, the advanced age and ill health of the MPs in the play, plus the perennial necessity of their presence at Westminster highlights the necessity for ‘new blood’ in the political arena. Not just because MPs have behaved as they’ve always done for decades, but if the causes they are championing doesn’t engage with the next generation, there is no one in the future to ‘carry on the fight’. On a more prescient note, yesterday Parliament voted against an amendment to allow shielded and vulnerable MP’s to vote remotely. Presenteeism – which is rife in western economies – has now been officially endorsed by the government, not even in its own best interest.
During one pertinent conversation between Taylor and Cocks, Taylor makes a point about not fitting in to the ‘laddish’/masculine culture of the political whips, with their ‘uncouth’ language and behaviour. Cocks makes a point of saying to her: “I don’t wan’t you to be like them. I want them to be like you!” In many ways a ‘Claudius’ (as opposed to a ‘Caesar’ or ‘Nero’), Cocks’ understated, non-threatening and conscientious demeanour is at odds with the political status quo – his willingness to compromise and cooperate considered a vice rather than a virtue, by some quarters. He sees in Taylor a kindred spirit and the potential for change right across Westminster. Of course at the end of the ’70s, another woman was to make a very different contribution to British politics, divisive in the extreme…
While there are other female characters in the play, the one that has the greatest impact on the ‘whips’ (and in the process poises some important questions) is Audrey Wise (Helena Lymbery) the MP for Coventry South West. In much of today’s politics, there are many instances where ‘towing the party line’ is seen as paramount, for fear that with dissension, the ‘whole deck of cards comes tumbling down’. The question of letting one’s conscience dictate how you should vote – especially if one thinks ‘the party’ has strayed from its ‘mission statement’ or moral centre – is an important one. In the case of Wise, her insistence on voting for what’s ‘right’ – regardless of whether is practical or ‘do-able’ – serves as a reminder of the constant tension between ‘principles’ and realpolitik. And while see here the handicap of being a minority goverment as a direct impediment to progress – an obstacle of paramount importance to overcome, obliquely we see the danger of staying in power for the sake of staying in power, as opposed to for the well-being of all.
Music is an important part of the show, played by ‘Jim and the Wires’, who are dressed and as a 1970s band. Accompanied by Phil Daniels and Gunnar Cauthery on vocals, early David Bowie songs such as Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide and Five Years feature, which when you hear them used in the context of the show, you realise they’re an inspired choice. Also worthy of note is the choreography of the ensemble and the camerawork that capitalises on this fluidity of moment.
Far from being a staid affair, This House taps into the sense of urgency of yesteryear, while at the same time fleshing out the myriad backgrounds and opinions of the electorate’s representatives. One could argue that with these factions, the play (and by virtue Parliament itself) is farcical by nature – that beyond the pomp and circumstance are absurd situations wrapped in archaic traditions. But as history repearedly shows, the votes carried out there have far-reaching effects, triggering unprecedented times…
© Michael Davis 2020
This House can be watched on YouTube until 3rd June: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vsSHyjEMrg&t=6290s
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