This House – National Theatre, booking until 16 May
This House has been the surprise package of what is proving to be a very successful season for the National – defying the surrounding economic gloom with a string of sell-out hits. It was inevitable that tickets for The Effect, Lucy Prebble’s follow-up to ENRON, and the latest Alan Bennett play would be scarcer than gold dust.
However This House did appear to be an altogether tougher sell; a play based almost entirely back rooms of Parliament, set between 1974 and 1979 and refusing the safety-net of caricature by eschewing references to MPs by name. Unless one held an acute knowledge of mid-70’s parliamentary constituencies it paid little concession to providing a Spitting Image-style satire on its subjects other than references to a certain ‘MP for Finchley’ and a fleeting appearance from a young Michael Heseltine.
As a self-confessed political and theatrical nerd none of this was particularly troubling as seeing the political process dissected on stage was the real joy. The likes of David Hare may stage politics with a big ‘P’, and there have always been any number of young tyros looking to reflect the impact of politics on society, but the institutions – the strange and archaic mechanisms that have supported one of the world’s longest running parliamentary democracies seem to have been rarely considered by playwrights.
Lord Scarman summed up the position eloquently in the late 80’s when he referred to the fact that the people are ‘only occasional partners in the constitutional minuet danced for most of the time by Parliament and the political party in power’. For all the radicalism of playwrights and protestors, politicians continue serenely onwards, safe in the institutions that have bent, flexed and twisted but never entirely shattered over the centuries. The British parliamentary system finds durability in its seeming lack of permanence. The lack of a codified constitution allows great flexibility in its approach; rules are in place because they are in place and always have been in place, not because they are written down in a book.
The very essence of maintaining the status quo, a great British tradition, is built into this approach. Without an awareness of the rules, and without any access to them, how can someone challenge the system? It is into these murky waters that James Graham’s This House looks to shine a light. It illuminates the hidden world of small ‘p’ politics; the grindingly mundane processes that allow the Government to govern and teases out exactly what happens when the metaphorical rulebook is thrown out of the metaphorical window.
So much of Parliament – the opening of Parliament by Black Rod, the Queen’s Speech, Prime Minister’s Question Time – is laced with symbolism about the importance of the function it serves, even if these aspects mean nothing to actual governing. James Graham and Jeremy Herrin have intrinsically grasped the parallels with theatre, which is that behind the spectacle there are those working themselves to the bone to keep the wheels turning and where power really resides. This is why the play focuses on the political Whips; the backroom boys who ensure that everything happens on time, that people know what they are supposed to be doing and that things actually happen.