Nominations for Britain's glitziest theatre awards, the Oliviers, have been announced, and Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington is chafing at some omissions. In particular, he feels that Gethsemane, David Hare's new play at the National Theatre, has been neglected.
There are a zillion things wrong with awards and their randomised outcomes, but on this point Billington seems pretty much alone (as the responses to his post suggest). Gethsemane is an entertaining editorial drama. It has some good lines, a promising set of situations, and a strong central argument - that mainstream political life in Britain has been leached of passion and idealism in favour of a heads-down pragmatism. That risk avoidance and damage control have become the most prized skills for public life.
But the thing that worries me here, as in much of Hare's writing, is the women. Forget Nicole Kidman's fake conk, what I found uncomfortable in his Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Hours was the way it glorified female hysteria and wilting passivity (at least his similarly-garlanded script for The Reader presents a no-nonsense woman who does stuff - even if, admittedly, she does some of it for the Nazis). Ignoring for a moment the character of a teenage girl, written with wincing implausibility, Gethsemane pits a female government minister, embroiled in several shades of scandal and fighting for her job, against an ex-teacher who helps sort out the minister's problems while acting as a sounding board for scepticism and decency.
Such contrasts are familiar among Hare's ladies. To be reductive, they tend to divide into witches or seers, pitted against each other in a smackdown for the moral highground. This can work: The Secret Rapture, with its subsoil of family trauma, made Thatcher's Britain a properly peculiar place - where the stubbornly unselfish self was left undefended against an almost evangelical sense of the greedy free market. A revival might be timely.
Elsewhere, however, Hare's women aren't allowed to 'be' - they're too busy representing, and arrived freighted with the burdens of moral choice. Although Hare is married to Nicole Farhi, the highly successful designer, his plays often credit women who duck out of the rat race with a heightened moral sense: Kyra in Skylight, for example, or Lori in Gethsemane (a former teacher who, disgusted by the bureaucratic burdens that intruded on education, now busks in tube stations). They act like lightning conductors, their neuroses symptomatic of a national malaise: as I found myself writing after seeing Cate Blanchett star in Plenty, Hare's hysterics are cracking up for England.
Hare would hardly be the first male dramatist whose female characters are as much emblems as independent creations. Pinter is a great example - Billington's biography of the playwright makes a valiant claim for the plays' feminist status, but I don't buy it. Pinter's chilly sex kittens and wary solitaries enter into territorial skirmishes with the blokes, often reluctantly, but sex is their only weapon and emasculation as much of a triumph as they can hope for. These are very powerful figures, archetypes of male anxiety - but their hollow victories can't be what feminism looks like.
I'm not so naive as to suggest that gender can, in our society, be neutral. In different contexts, our genders carry so much weighty significance about status, need, virtue, biology, that it's surprising we can't hear our chromosomes dragging their burdens along the floor as we move. But that doesn't stop us questioning some of our assumptions, blushing at our ideals and fantasies, finding more intelligent responses to the state we're in.
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