Review: Hansard, National Theatre

It’s the end of another strenuous week being a member of Maragret Thatcher’s cabinet in 1988, and Robin Hesketh (Alex Jennings) returns home to his wife Diana (Lindsay Duncan) in their rural Cotswolds home.

It feels disingenuous to say that I struggle with Hansard because I don’t like the characters, simply because, of course, I don’t like the characters: they’re not designed to be liked. There is nobody we’re meant to root for, and nobody for us to grow with. This is where it starts to fall apart a little. Even as the formulaic bickering shifts into more personal waters, it remains unexpectedly structured. I struggle to believe that this was the first time that these conversations had been had, even in the context of their emotionally repressed marriage.

As I mentioned, it would be a challenge to feel anything except moderate distaste towards either character. It’s easy to explain this for Robin: he’s a textbook mid-1980’s Conservative, spouting the party line and “explaining” economic principles using analogies that seem to have been passed down the family line like an heirloom. Honestly, he’s an easy target. Diana, on the other hand, invites a little more moral ambiguity. This is enabled, at least in part, by the fact that Lindsay Duncan is such a powerful presence, drifting from the wistful wife, her virtual captivity only worsened by notions of emancipation, to something far more predatorial, stalking her husband with accusations from past and present. It also can’t hurt that her politics are more palatable to me. However, if it’s reasonable to dislike one character for being complicit in Article 28, how can one not feel some level of disdain for the character who sits at home and spends his money? She doesn’t practice what she preaches, leaving the character somewhere between confusing and insincere.

It would be easy to plaster certain labels onto this play, to describe it as “current” because of its political overtones. However, what this would overlook is that over the past couple of years, we have been forced to think about the political compass in a more nuanced way. Happily, many of us have grown past the behaviours shown by the Heskeths, labelling each other’s camps as “the left” or “the right”, and proceeding to throw barbs for forty minutes. If we’ve learned to think about politics as something beyond two unified and polarised camps, what is there to gain from squinting back a few years at what now looks brutally simplistic?

The final section of the play honestly feels like writer Simon Woods realised that he had to end it somehow. It feels tacked on, and what could have offered emotional growth for the characters instead seems underexplored, perhaps trivialised. Revelations come late enough that they only serve to cement the extent to which the characters are almost embarrassingly self-absorbed, despite clearly attempting to gather our sympathies.

In general, for me this play just doesn’t hit its mark. It feels somewhat aimless and undercooked, without much of a foundation to build itself on.

Hansard is playing the National Theatre until 25 November. For more information and tickets, see  the National Theatre website.