Anyone considering fleeing Britain surely will hasten the process after seeing “The Permanent Way,” the inordinately sad new play from David Hare that shifts this playwright’s onetime focus on “the loveless English” toward a land of disinterest and despair, corruption and inaction. The actual topic — the calamities that have beset Britain’s railways since they were privatized — may sound parochial beyond belief, but that’s to turn a deaf ear toward the play’s gathering aural mosaic of quietly yet firmly held grief. Less an actual play than a living newspaper of sorts, a docu-drama refracted through a playwright’s penchant for the distillation required to build theatrical tension, “The Permanent Way” itself builds toward a threnody of regret and rage — regret for the England that once was and could still be again, rage at the comprehensive disregard of British officialdom for a public who must stand by as profit is seen to take precedence over human lives not once but four times. And surely more to come.
Hare is better known of late as the celebrity magnet whose words managed to bring Judi Dench a Tony and Nicole Kidman an Oscar, among other accolades. But he has always displayed the shrewdest reporter’s instinct, intriguingly so for the author who (with Howard Brenton) famously lampooned journalism or, at least, a particular kind of newspaper proprietor, nearly two decades ago in the play “Pravda.”
After a distinctly shaky start during which Hare’s own invented dialogue threatens to derail his larger project, this latest play comes into its impassioned own as an edited transcript from what one might call the front: a front line of passengers-turned-victims and perpetrators cushioning their shame with handsome payouts.
“The Permanent Way” inevitably will mean more to the countrymen whom Hare means to rally in what is a true piece of agitprop in the non-pejorative sense of the word. The British have always loved their trains, and Hare’s play courses with barely suppressed fury at the mixture of idiocy and profound irresponsibility that has seen four major train crashes occur at various sites within an hour of London since 1997.
Are lessons being learned? Hardly, we find, with the most recent crash — at Potters Bar, north of London, in May 2002 — also the one, incredibly, that has met with the least satisfying official response. (Not that the putative villains of the occasion are suffering: Jarvis, the company whose job it was to maintain the problematic track, has just been awarded a $600 million contract to improve the lines nationwide.)
Facts and figures, of course, don’t make a play; individuals do. And Hare, reteaming here with the director, Max Stafford-Clark, who staged his first play, “Slag,” in 1971, uses nine actors to portray more than three times as many people ensnared in the web of “the permanent way,” as the rail network was once, rather more optimistically known. From a higher-up at the widely loathed Railtrack company to a British transport policeman, survivors of the crash and relatives of those who died, Hare gives (mostly) compassionate voice to a cross-section of experiences, encounters and views (the one outright buffoon of the piece being the recurring figure of John Prescott, Labor’s deputy prime minister, here impersonated in full bluster by Lloyd Hutchinson).
The preparatory shenanigans near the start — the passages, in other words, consisting of Hare’s own words — do no one any favors. Stafford-Clark’s direction of them is manic and clumsy; there’s lots of snapping of newspapers, as if this were some kind of journalism-themed “Laugh-In” sketch. And the same cast who double and triple so smoothly later on look pretty silly falling into bits of posturing that can be no substitute in this context for actual words, honest recollections. (One man is seen lamenting the inability of the British to get angry during tube strikes — which only makes one wonder where he has been on those numerous days when all of London comes to a halt and seethes with palpable rage.)
But once Hare leads us into the Southall rail disaster in 1997 and on to further ones in 1999, 2000, and that Potters Bar scenario of 2002, the play resonates with a surreal sense of ghastly repetition — a grotesque “Groundhog Day,” to cite the film mentioned several times in the play — alongside a capacity for the sort of inadequate explanation that is uniquely English: The renewal of the track at Hatfield, where the October 2000 disaster took place, was never undertaken because, someone says, “It was the wrong kind of rail.”
Why put up with this? Why indeed, and the play is nowhere more moving than when presenting a citizenry who, against the odds, have refused to be cowed. Flaminia Cinque brings real gallantry to her portrait of an Essex mother who lost a 29-year-old son, a hotshot lawyer, in the Southall crash and finds herself invoking his more elegant language to argue, against the odds, for restitution and some kind of public accountability.
Playing another mother a notch or two up the social ladder, Bella Merlin communicates the soft-spoken ferocity of the newly committed, an apolitical woman who won’t let a child’s death go unremarked any more than she will tolerate the description of the accident in the tabloid press as a “human BBQ.”
To that extent, “The Permanent Way” treads seriously emotive ground, and one can only wonder what it would be like to watch in the company of some of Hare and his colleagues’ interviewees. (In the communal tradition of the Joint Stock company where Hare and Stafford-Clark began their careers, author, director and cast all turned reporters for the play.)
Does one wish for more “balance,” whatever that might mean? Perhaps, not least to the extent that the railways had their share of crashes back in the days when they were fully underwritten by the government. (One wonders if Hare approached Prescott for an actual interview.)
But for all its sorrow, the play sings as well of a different, more giving England, not least in the story of a taxi driver who — told of the grieving passengers he was carrying — turned off his meter. Sometimes, there’s compassion so quickly, as Tennessee Williams might have said, even if the abiding effect of this bleak and furious play is to rouse us, and its many bereft inhabitants, to a realm beyond anger.