Backstage UK politics makes thrilling drama in ‘This House’
LONDON — A government riven by feuding faces a shaky global economy and a referendum on Britain’s role in Europe.
Those events have been unfolding in real life — and on the London stage, in an eerily timely hit play about political machinations in Parliament more than 40 years ago.
“This House “ tells the unexpectedly riveting true story of a tottering Labour government’s attempts to cling to power with a wafer-thin majority in the House of Commons.
The play mentions the dramas of the time, including a 1975 referendum on whether to leave the European Union’s predecessor, the European Economic Community. Britons elected to stay in back then, unlike their vote this year.
But the great political figures of the era, including soon-to-be Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, do not appear onstage. The main characters — and surprising heroes — are the whips, lawmakers tasked with enforcing discipline, keeping fellow legislators in line and making sure they turn up for votes. In 1970s Britain, that sometimes meant literally carrying sick or dying lawmakers into the Parliament building.
Reviewers praised the play’s timeliness Thursday, the day after its opening at London’s Garrick Theatre. The Guardian’s Michael Billington called it “a thrilling play that both relives history and transcends it.” In the Times of London, Ann Treneman said, “Machiavelli himself would have given this five stars.”
“Power, cruelty, class — some things don’t change,” Treneman wrote.
“This House,” which had its original run at the National Theatre in 2012-13, is the work of James Graham, whose plays include the Election Day drama “The Vote” and the surveillance saga “Privacy,” recently seen at New York’s Public Theater with Daniel Radcliffe.
Graham, who was born in 1982, didn’t experience the 1970s, but he has an interest in the unexplored corners of politics, and chose to focus on the whips because they are feared and mysterious figures.
“There is great mythology around them through dramas like ‘House of Cards,'” Graham told journalists and lawmakers during a recent discussion at Parliament. In the Netflix series, Congressman Frank Underwood begins his ascent to power in the whip’s office — just as member of Parliament Francis Urquhart did in the original British “House of Cards.”
“The stereotype that it is the dark arts and it’s all about manipulation and blackmail and bribery,” Graham said. “There’s an element of that, of course.”
But in the playwright’s hands, the truth is more complex. Graham wants to depict politicians as rounded human beings — something he says “gets me no cool or brownie points” in our cynical age.
Foul-mouthed, funny and unexpectedly poignant, “This House” centers on the real-life figures of Labour whip Walter Harrison (played by Steffan Rhodri) and Conservative counterpart Jack Weatherill (Nathaniel Parker) and their role in the downfall of Prime Minister James Callaghan’s Labour government in 1979.
It fell by one vote on a no-confidence motion in the House of Commons, triggering an election that saw Thatcher take power. She held office for more than a decade, transforming Britain with her free-market zeal. Labour didn’t get back into office until 1997.
It’s a pivotal time in U.K. history, but Graham is less interested in the big political picture than in the details of Britain’s leaky, creaky Parliament — both the building and the humans who keep it going.
“I didn’t really want to talk about the policy of the 70s, I didn’t want to talk about the economic situation or the international situation or the oil crisis,” Graham said. “I wanted to talk about how this building runs, how it functions, or doesn’t function, when it’s under stress.
“If you’re going to look at this building, if you’re going to look at this system of democracy and how it works, it makes sense to me to explore it at its most frantic, at its most dramatic and when it’s just about teetering on the edge of collapse,” he said.