Review: Gethsemane

By John Nathan, November 13, 2008

Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1

Corrupt Labour fundraiser Otto Fallon (Stanley Townsend) schmoozes ethical ex-teacher Lori (Nicola Walker)

Corrupt Labour fundraiser Otto Fallon (Stanley Townsend) schmoozes ethical ex-teacher Lori (Nicola Walker)

David Hare's latest play arrives amid a rash of disclaimers and denials. There is even a whiff of affidavit in the programme note, in which Hare says his play is drawn from "public events" yet is a work of "pure fiction". The words "eat", "have" and "cake" come to mind.

But in a play featuring as it does a Prime Minister Beasley (played by Anthony Calf) with Christian convictions; a Home Secretary (Tamsin Greig) whose husband is mired in prosecutions abroad; and last but most, a teetotal Labour Party fundraiser called Otto Fallon (Stanley Townsend), it is fair to say that we can be sure about which public figures Hare is writing - even though Fallon smokes dope and has a ponytail, and plays squash with Beasley rather than tennis.

To underline the relationship, Bob Crowley's design for Howard Davies's slick production is a squash court-shaped-enclosure. Yet the heroine in Hare's play is not a politician, but ex-school teacher Lori (Nicola Walker) who gave up her vocation in what she describes as her moment of doubt, just like Jesus's in the garden of Gethsemane.

Using too much coincidence, Hare links the emotional and political elements of his play. While Lori's husband has landed a job with Fallon's fundraising operation, Lori counsels her ex-pupil, the Home Secretary's drug-taking daughter Suzette (Jessica Raine), who would have been expelled had Fallon not bribed her school with a new gym.

Suzette has also slept with a middle-aged, right-wing journalist and told him about the bribe. It is here that Hare is very convincing about the Machiavellian art of news management, the nihilism of modern journalism and the price paid by the families of politicians.

But his target is mainly Fallon, the vulgar fundraiser who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing; whose influence with the Prime Minister has alienated Cabinet colleagues, and who is painted as the Mephistophelean half of a grubby Faustian pact.

Hare asks the crucial question of what party fundraisers offer donors in return for their money. But the view that only Fallon - who started out as a Hendon hairdresser - embodies the values that have undermined Labour's principles is simplistic, and that is something I thought this playwright could never be.

Interestingly there is no reference to Judaism in the play, yet the character of the dope-smoking Fallon, played with gallons of charisma by Townsend, has consistently been reported in the run-up to the opening as being Jewish. Which begs an obvious question. Why?

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Last updated: 10:53am, November 13 2008