Review – Gethsemane by David Hare, National Theatre

Tuesday 11 November 2008

One of the many questions that Whingers get asked is: why do you go to see things that you’re so clearly not going to enjoy?

That and: “What do you think you’re doing with my wine?”

The answer to the former is that the Whingers are constantly hoping to better themselves. While this may seem to you to display a distinct paucity of ambition, the Whingers are committed to exposing themselves to as wide a range of cultural input as possible. It is their hope that theatre can expand their horizons, challenge their thinking and create new dreams for them to live. Very like Mr Barack Obama in this respect, the Whingers dare to hope for change we need.

Playwright David Hare is a case in point. Not known for his musicals, whodunnits nor lately for amusingly written parts for Dames of the British Empire (Amy’s View being the most recent we can think of) he seems, on the surface of it, to have little on his stall that might attract the attention of a passing Whinger.

Yet Gethsemane could so easily have gone either way; Andrew had been much moved by The Permanent Way, Hare’s verbatim theatrical piece on the privatisation of the railways; Phil had some good words to say about Stuff Happens (although Andrew fell asleep 15 minutes in and bailed out at the interval).

Gethsemane is set in New Labour territory. The daughter (Jessica Raine) of the home secretary (who is not based on Phil’s ex-neighbour Tessa Jowell) has been caught smoking pot but isn’t expelled from her private school because a man who is not based on Lord Levy has been installed as a governor and buys the school a new gym. But the home secretary (Tamsin Greig) is on the brink of scandal anyway due to the dubious overseas financial activities and ensuing court appearance of her husband (who isn’t based on David Mills) and the Prime Minister (Anthony Calf) isn’t impressed. This is a religious, jeans-wearing PM and obviously not based on Tony Blair because he plays the drums, not the guitar.

There’s also a journalist who is a parliamentary sketch writer who also pens a Saturday column for his “family friendly newspaper”. But cleverly there’s no mention of him also being the paper’s theatre critic. So the Daily mail’s Quentin Letts won’t be suing then. In fact he’ll probably tickled by it (but perhaps not the play). The Whingers can’t wait to see what he has to say about it…

No it’s not based on real events at all. Just as The Female of the Species was not based on Germaine Greer.

In fact, Mr Hare (who the Whingers spotted being very tall in the Cottesloe foyer before the play) points this out very clearly in the programme.

Gethsemane is my third recent play at the National Theatre drawing on public events. The Permanent Way is pure fact, transcribed. Stuff Happens is one-third transcribed, two-thirds imagined. Gethsemane is pure fiction. DH

You can read Hare’s reaction to the Mail’s Baz Bamigboye’s suggestion that this was inserted for legal reasons here.

OK got that everyone? Are we all quite clear now?

Mr Hare seems to know everything that is wrong with government and politics and likes to point it out. What the Whingers wanted, however, was some hope, vision or inspiration for how things should be. For a political playwright he seems chronically short on ideology.

In fact, not unlike The Whingers, he doesn’t really seem impressed with much at all. It’s as though he’s waving his arms in the air in exasperation and uttering a Homer Simpson-like “D’oh!”.

It would be wrong to characterise this as a wasted evening – as just one more episode in the Curse of the Cottesloe (whose only redeeming production in recent memory has been The Pitmen Painters). No, indeed, the Whingers were inspired by two important discoveries:

  1. If you sit in Row T you get your own personal space for coats and bags behind your seat.
  2. the spicy roasted almonds they serve in the bar are delicious.

Aside from that, there is not much to report: no tension, no drama, no moral decisions, no “what happens next” (except for, wisely, the last scene before the interval). The play feels flat, lacks variety of pace, and ticks along with all the excitement of a metronome. The Whingers didn’t care about any of the characters. If a nuclear bomb had landed on the lot of them it wouldn’t have mattered a jot. Phil didn’t appreciate the introduction of his theatrical bête noir, the park bench. Andrew didn’t appreciate the clunky scene changes.

There are one or two laugh-out-loud moments: ” Harold Macmillan read Trollope and walked the moors, but we have to be boring” (which seems less funny today) but otherwise this was an unrewarding evening.

The programme was only £2 (5p more than the almonds) but don’t buy it because the article by Mark Danner is dismal.


  1. We checked on wikipedia and there is no evidence whatsoever to support Andrew’s assertion that David Hare was married to Doris Hare.
  2. As part of the new NT schedule, playwright David Hare will read Berlin, his new 55-minute meditation on Germany’s restored capital, for eight early-evening performances only in the NT Lyttelton from 10 February to 20 March 2009. We’re going to give it a miss.
  3. As evidence of the Whingers’ commitment to expanding their horizons, we offer the following account of our wet Sunday activities: a double bill of the Enda Walsh/Steve McQueen film Hunger followed by a second IRA related entertainment In Love With Barbara starring WEW-fave Anne Reid (as Barbara Cartland). Both were very satisfying indeed.

14 Responses to “Review – Gethsemane by David Hare, National Theatre”

  1. betsy Says:

    ah, david hare, i’ll push him any time. preferably under a train. (or perhaps he can write us a (long, tedious) play about unimaginative taxpayer- subsidised institutions providing welfare to the same old playwrights as they churn out increasingly embarrassing work..)

  2. I meant to see this last Friday but because of work crisis, I had to miss it. I thought if it was a good play I would kick myself silly but if it wasnt, (and esp of you guys didnt like it) then it didnt feel as if I lost so much. Well I guess the £10 I paid would have given the Whingers 5 more packets of spicy roasted almonds. 🙂

  3. michael Says:

    “Breath of Life” was a more recent play than “Amy’s View” and actually starred TWO dames of the British Empire.But in spite of the luxurious casting of the Dames Judi and Maggie was,as you yourself have proved,instantly forgetable

  4. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    I had no idea he’d never been married to Doris. I do however remember his dear grandfather Robertson warning him that his early plays lacked trouser-dropping and vicars. It was sage advice: dear Robertson knew his onions.

  5. Down to me to mention Hartley, then, is it?

  6. Rev Stan Says:

    I had a ticket to see this on Boxing day but as I might be going away now decided to cash it in. Sounds like a good move.

  7. sandown Says:

    A play in the so-called “National Theatre” on the topic of Labour Party funding sounds like the subsidised theatre at its most self-indulgent.

    It offers nothing more than an evening out for the middle-class Left, during the long dark twilight of socialism.

  8. No, apparently we are hopelessly misguided on this one:

    David Hare’s new play is one of his very best and easily the best play of the year. It draws on aspects of contemporary public life – and characters – to weave a beautifully plotted drama of lost idealism, hypocrisy in journalism (“mockery oils the wheels of democracy”), political party fund-raising and, especially, the scandal of the systematic demoralisation of teachers. (Michael Coveney)

    So there.

  9. Ben Says:

    Yeah, but you’re featured in this week’s TimeOut, so it all balances.

  10. mannyfarber Says:

    Sandown. I love the idea that by putting inverted commas round a word and saying so-called, you devastatingly undermine its credibility. You really don’t, you just sound foolish.

    It *is* the National Theatre. Probably the most prestigious theatre in Europe and nothing you say will change the fact that its shows sell out and tour the world to enormous acclaim. It’s a great theatre and one we should be proud to have as our flagship.

    I expect I won’t like the play when I see it. But it’s about government. That’s not self-indulgent, that’s healthy. Self-indulgent would be a play at the National about how hard it is to run a large subsidised arts organisation.

  11. she with he of Xanadu on stage seating Says:

    I wouldn’t say that this play was boring, but I can tell you that there were 237 visible flooring pannels from where I was sitting, over 150 vodka bottles in the bar scene, that my pashmina has 428 little string tassles on it and that Neil Kinnock’s head shines in the dark.

  12. jmc Says:

    “David Hare’s new play is one of his very best” – talk about damning with feint praise…

  13. betsy Says:

    wow. this was really awful. even by the standards of bad hare.

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