The trouble with absolute certainty is that it leaves precious little room for drama. Given its highly pertinent subject — fund-raising and its effect upon political parties — “Gethsemane,” David Hare’s 14th play for the National Theater, is unsurprisingly swarming with strongly held opinions. But despite vivid moments conjured by neatly contrasted viewpoints, Hare’s own convictions rarely allow his play to coalesce into convincing drama.
This is a play in which people literally tell audiences what they think. As in his structurally similar but vastly superior “Racing Demon,” Hare’s characters explain themselves via scenes of direct audience address.
But gone is the engrossing balance of the earlier play. Characters are divided into goodies and baddies. The latter — the prime minister and his chief fund-raiser — aren’t accorded the luxury of an address or, by inference, a conscience. As a result, the loudest voice belongs not to one of the characters but to the playwright.
Hare’s observations are threaded through a narrative about Suzette (Jessica Raine), 16-year-old daughter of Meredith (a brisk and brittle Tamsin Greig), who is home secretary in the Labour government. Suzette has been caught smoking dope at school, the potential fallout from which has been quashed via the intervention of power-wielding fund-raiser Otto Fallon (Stanley Townsend), who buys the school off with a new gym.
But further fallout is threatened when it’s revealed Suzette has slept with an older man (Adam James) who happens to be a journalist.
Simultaneously, Hare sets up — in every sense — Mike (Daniel Ryan), an unconvincingly naive home office civil servant who goes to work for Otto. His wife Lori (Nicola Walker), a typically idealistic Hare heroine, is there not just to be the conscience of the play/playwright but, as Suzette’s ex-teacher, to tie the plots together.
Attempting a broad canvas to illustrate the political ramifications of personal activity, and vice versa, is laudable. But to land his punches, Hare has to rush the narratives. Key plot moments, like the breaking of Suzette’s scandal, are left out, which creates further difficulties.
Mike, all too predictably sickened by the duplicity involved in political fund-raising, has a meltdown. But even an actor as fine as Ryan can’t make you care enough, because no matter how expressive his pain, his character remains underdeveloped. Similarly, Lori’s hope-filled final revelation is too underwritten to be anything but sentimental.
The strongest scenes are those in which characters find themselves in a difficult situation, notably the showdown between beleaguered Meredith and Prime Minister Beasley (Anthony Calf).
In his sole scene, Calf’s coolly and amusingly patrician performance goes a long way toward humanizing the role. Hare’s program note insists that, unlike “Stuff Happens,” this is pure fiction. But you can almost hear the accompanying sneer as he riffs on reality, turning ex-P.M. and electric guitarist Tony Blair into Beasley, who plays the drums. In case there’s any doubt that drums are an unmusical instrument, he underlines the point by making Lori a classical pianist.
Photo projections of the London skyline and fast-motion video of traffic streaking through streets are splashed across Bob Crowley’s neutral, white-paneled squash-court set. Indeed, Howard Davies’ production throughout is as neat as the play. Those looking to have their concerns about money and politics echoed in a public arena may relish the opportunity. Ironically, others are likely to feel that, theatrically speaking, they’ve been short-changed.