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David Hare is Seventy Today. Remembering Racing Demon.

June 5, 2017

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One of the most prolific of dramatists is seventy today.  He’s one of those very rare people who have been famous for as long as I’ve been conscious that some people are famous yet who isn’t actually that old.  Seventy years seems an absurdly short space of time for someone to have written all that he’s written.

I remembering him saying once that one of the most important duties of a dramatist is guaranteeing the quality of the argument in the bar afterwards.  This sounds rather Brechtian, and of course it is, but it’s equally part of a tradition stretching back through Shaw and Granville-Barker back to Ibsen.  In terms of their dogged refusal to offer “closure”, Brecht and Ibsen had more in common than is generally assumed.  Discuss.  In the bar afterwards.

My most rewarding experience of watching a Hare play, was Racing Demon (1990), part of a trilogy of plays dealing with British institutions, along with Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War.

The play discusses the nature of institutionalised faith and whether an institution serves a faith or a faith an institution.  Can we believe without forms and hierarchies to support us?   Meanwhile, the bitterness and waste and cruelty of a world in which the sewer press can exploit the prevalent perception that those devoted to Christ should not fall in love with someone of the same sex forms the centrepiece of a drama about the contradictions which late twentieth century Anglicanism has to try to negotiate.  Or fudge.

The central performance by Oliver Ford Davies (perhaps best known as Queen Amidala’s prime minister in Star Wars Phantom Menace) was immensely moving.  Indeed, few things I’ve ever seen on stage have been as moving as seeing Oliver Ford Davies trying to pray.  The steeliest atheist in the theatre finds part of themselves wishing for some Voice of God to reply to this honest man of honest fractured faith at times.  Here was a man who couldn’t relax into fideism nor abandon his faith either.  He wrestled with it instead.

He’s well supported of course.  Richard Pasco is his steely clerical superior whose impassive facade eventually breaks down into a passionate denunciation of an inchoate Anglicanism bereft of substance and offering only nostalgic mood music to accompany staggered and managed spiritual and national decline.  Incidentally, I think as a youngster, with easy access to the National Theatre in London, I saw no actor as often as I saw Richard Pasco, that NT stalwart with the deep-set eyes and resounding voice that could reach the back of the Olivier and the Cottesloe with equal facility.

Another great memory of this play, was the number of Anglican clergy actually watching the performance.  The dog collars on stage were surrounded by dog collars in the audience.  Hare was assuredly not writing an apology for Anglicanism.  The sympathy that was generated by Hare and Ford Davies for Anglicanism was the product of intelligent dramatic writing and acting born of a technical need to get inside the play’s subjects.  What was interesting was the fact that this was clearly a play that Anglican clergy felt that they ought to see.  This was theatre enforcing a sense of professional obligation.  It is a testimony to the kind of openness and reflexivity that a kind of Anglicanism can offer, that so many clergy felt that they ought to subject themselves to such a thoughtful and troubling play.   And it is a testimony to David Hare’s vision of “national” theatre that he could write a play that created this sense of importance and occasion,

It is plays like Racing Demon that make me feel that Hare’s real mentor was neither Brecht nor Ibsen, but perhaps Anthony Trollope.

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