A TIMELY REMINDER
YES, PRIME MINISTER
Written by Jonathan Lynn & Antony Jay
Directed by Tom Gutteridge
at Opera House, Wellington
From 2 Jul 2013 to 6 Jul 2013
Reviewed by John Smythe, 4 Jul 2013
From within the quaintly old-fashioned stage conventions of the well-made ‘drawing room comedy', wherein the actors pace and pose and deliver their key lines full-frontally in declamatory voices, a ripping political satire bursts forth.
This is not a nostalgic revisiting of the 1980s BBC TV series. The time is now, the issues are contemporary and this cast of Australians plus one Kiwi – each with an impressive list credits behind them – take the roles unto themselves with relish. Sir Humphrey Appleby, Jim Hacker and Bernard Woolley have become British commedia characters able to be transplanted into new scenarios without ageing.
Written by the series originators, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, the stage play premiered at Chichester then transferred to London in 2010 and the Australian premiere was in February last year. Yet the more things have changed in global politics over three decades, the more the internal machinations of the political process remain the same – almost.
We are privy to the British PM's office at Chequers, his official country residence, at the conclusion of an international conference he has chaired. Jim Hacker's petty concerns as to his actual status in the wider world, not to mention his security as the PM in a hung parliament, the self-serving Sir Humphrey's dubious definition of democracy and the bumbling Bernard's idealism are clearly re-established by the time the first ‘situation' emerges.
Kumranistan, a little-known country bordering Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has discovered massive new oil reserves that could furnish a 10 trillion dollar loan to fund a pipeline project that will resolve Britain's ever-present financial pressures … provided a few ‘minor' issues and requirements are confronted and accommodated … Thus the moral dilemmas arise and proliferate.
Jay and Lynn are masters of their craft in the way they extract comedy from the twisting rack of jeopardy, raising the stakes in surprising ways and delivering ‘pay-offs' from well-planted set-ups.
The territory traversed includes the British antipathy towards the Euro, avoiding accountability, disdain for foreigners who have to be accommodated not least because they are rich, the role of sex in international relations, the credibility of computer modelling (cf: sub-prime mortgages), the proliferation of ‘Tsars' in the public service, and the fundamental quest for self-preservation-cum-advancement within the constraints of ‘the system'.
Robert Grubb's suave, mellifluous Sir Humphrey – a Classics major from Oxford - is beautifully pitched, even as he confronts his own vulnerability and potential demise. His flights of obfuscating ‘Applebygook' garner well-deserved applause and he earns some exquisite moments of stillness and silence, where we all know exactly what he is thinking and feeling. A consummate performance.
The moments of lucidity and strength this 21st century Jim Hacker has – albeit fuelled by Scotch – makes him a worthy ‘opponent' to Sir H, allowing Mark Owen-Taylor to explore a full range of mental and emotional states. His totally credible fallible humanity compels our empathy, even as we scoff at his inability to make a decision, let alone act, without reference to his advisers.
Along with moral dilemmas I love a good paradox and Hacker's, “Democracy is driven by the will of the people; I am their leader: I must follow!” epitomises the timeless political conundrum.
Once I have got used to the accent Russell Fletcher brings to Bernard Woolley (I think it's Irish and can't help wondering why it's not Northern), I warm to his hapless state as the scapegoat and fall-guy, even as the moral fabric of modern society falls in tatters around him.
The new breed of adviser, whose doctorate is actually directly related to political science, is Claire Sutton, armed with folders of stock responses to those pesky and ever-invasive media hounds who keep seeking ‘the truth'. Caroline Craig clearly knows this person – and we do too. She just needs to let her ‘be' rather than try to spoon-feed us with mugged reactions which subvert her credibility and thus the comedy. Her style is such that my companion and I keep expecting her to burst into song.
As the Kumranistan Ambassador – also Harrow and Oxford educated - David Aston “plays a straight bat” that drives the drama and jeopardy splendidly. By representing the misogynistic values of his country with roundly articulated strength and conviction, he too is a ‘worthy opponent' and provokes much satire about the more hypocritical British values.
Being the sort of production that requires understudies allows for bit parts to be added (in a way never seen in new New Zealand plays). Laura Maitland is every inch the BBC political journalist Simone Chester – and Timothy Schwerdt, plus a stage manager presumably, man the cameras to give us a live feed of the live-to-air TV interview that climaxes the show.
Mention must be made of Graham McGuffie's solid set design, able to withstand a good door slam, and the flash effects of Keith Tucker's otherwise unobtrusive lighting design. It's a shame the producers feel compelled to augment the actors' voices with hidden microphones, especially when soundly motivated shouted syllables distort on the speakers, and when the aforementioned declamatory style is the order of the day. Venues like Wellington's Opera House are designed for dialogue plays and the box set should ensure the voices will carry.
Aside from all that, director Tom Gutteridge has ensured the play achieves it politically satirical purpose. In essence Yes, Prime Minister is a timely reminder that what were are presented with by ‘the machine' cannot be taken at face value and we must remain forever vigilant if we hope to retain any semblance of democracy.
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See also reviews by:
Matt Baker (TheatreScenes - the Auckland Theatre Blog);
Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);