Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 32: David Hare’s The Breath of Life (2002)
David Hare is divisive. In my experience, I’ve found that some tend not to like him. I guess that it is because he occasionally comes across as a champagne socialist. His opinions can be unpopular, yes, but I have to admit that I like his work. I read his National Theatre trilogy last year (Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War) and it’s hard not to be won over by their cinematic pace, strong opening images and epic scale and scope; they read like thrillers. Likewise, the intimacy of Skylight (I saw Stephen Daldry’s 2014 revival) was no less compelling.
Earlier this year, I read Hare’s memoir The Blue Touch Paper (2015) which spans from his childhood until the early eighties. I highly recommend it. There are large parts of it filled with the theatrical anecdotes for which you crave in a playwright’s memoir. He vividly paints Peggy Ramsay’s eccentricity and bluntness, and includes a letter from her in which she expresses with admirable clarity her encouragement that Knuckle was a play which challenged what most West End audiences went to see.
He argues passionately about theatre including the importance of rough and ready touring political theatre in his days at Portable, and the power of large scale plays about national themes on national stages. There were parts I was fascinated to read about, such as his instrumentalism in setting up Joint Stock with Max Stafford Clark, and introducing the plays of Wallace Shawn to UK audiences. He also writes inspiringly of the generosity and artistic daring of people such as Michael Codron and Richard Eyre – to think that Eyre started his tenure as AD of the Nottingham Playhouse with 11 new plays (one being Hare’s and Howard Brenton’s Brassneck) is a reminder of how regional theatre has changed in the last 30 years.
However, it’s not all an easy read. It’s often frustrating and sometimes infuriating, wanting me to rename it As Easy as That! I’m not implying Hare didn’t work hard, but his education and early days in the industry are portrayed as being filled with opportunity, from backpacking across America stopping at the homes of now eminent figures of the 20th century (including Rosa Parks’ lawyer) to lunching with Hitchcock in Cambridge to falling into the role of literary manager at the Royal Court. It’s not just that he writes of chance meetings and being in the right place at the right time, it’s more that I got the sense that he was of an upbringing/ society/ generation where opportunity was more easily available. I don’t mean to sound bitter.
His memories of Cambridge are telling. He directed a play at university where several people involved now have big wig jobs. Germaine Greer was in the cast, for example, and someone who later held a prominent position at the ENO conducted the band. As I look out of the window and sigh that we can’t all be Germaine Greer (I jest!) there’s a more pressing point. Whilst reading it, I started to get the impression that many of the interesting, important and powerful jobs could be currently filled by people who went to Oxbridge. That may have changed in recent times, and it’s pleasing that Rufus Norris is the first NT AD since Olivier who didn’t go to Oxbridge, but the idea that many of those roles are held by people heralding from a very small circle of friends is disconcerting.
It’s apt that I write about his memoir in regards to the The Breath of Life as it is a play about two people in their sixties reflecting back on their life. Indeed, there are elements to the two women’s stories that echo events in The Blue Touch Paper. The play is set on the Isle of Wight where Frances, who’s recently found success as a novelist, has come to confront Madeleine, who was having an affair with Frances’ ex-husband for much of their marriage. Martin, the husband, has since left the country for America and for another woman, but Frances, looking for closure, wants to write a memoir of her husband’s betrayal. Such a synopsis would easily leave one wondering if this play is really by one of Britain’s leading chroniclers of contemporary issues. Indeed, the play is partly about writing and the differences between so called ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ writers. Its arguments don’t reach the topical heights of Skylight but it does subtly touch on relevant and perceptive themes. Frances and Madeleine discuss for instance how the ideals of youth are often soon lost in exchange for settling down. They also mark how they noticed a transition from the sixties, where people fought for causes, into a time where people started being more interested in the self. These are all ideas chewed over by Hare himself in his memoir, ideas which I’ve not read expressed in such an articulate way before.
The play invites you to think about different layers of writing. At one point Frances and Madeleine reflect on our lack of thirst for fiction. We’d rather think about who Marilyn Monroe was dating at the time of making a certain movie than the actual plot of that movie. Considering the original production of this play starred Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, it is easy to do the same with The Breath of Life. Which Harry Potter film was Smith filming at the time? Did the two get along? Also, I can’t help but wonder if a mention of Bill Clinton was added because of a visit from the Clintons themselves to the Theatre Royal Haymarket whilst it was playing. What would they have made of a play, I wonder, which is so much about the left overs of a deceitful marriage?
The Breath of Life is a slow burner of a play full of atmospheric, beguiling images: two women drinking beer and eating curry in the middle of the night overlooking the promenade seems to be typical Hare.