Interview with This House writer and director James Graham and Jeremy Herrin
James Graham's political drama This House exploded onto the National Theatre stage in 2012 where it became a hit in the Cottesloe Theatre before transferring to the larger Olivier Theatre later that year. After rumours of a West End transfer failed to ignite, the “long delayed” return of the play finally lands north of the river at the Garrick Theatre following a stint in Chichester later next month.
As one of the most talented writers of his generation, Graham's skill at offering a personal and empathetic slant on the political circus has resulted in the success of This House not only as an exploration of a turbulent and relatable period of British political history but also a human description of the people behind the politics.
“What intrigued and inspired me into humanising politicians, which gets you no brownie points in theatre, is the day to day function of how you run your party and your members, parts of which are very moving, they are humans.” Graham explains. “They have personal problems, marital problems, emotional problems, psychological problems. I was very taken with this macho, brutal world that sometimes had to accommodate people with these very problems.”
Speaking within the bowels of the House of Commons at a panel discussion with the play's director Jeremy Herrin, the Conservative former deputy Chief Whip Anne Milton and Ann Taylor, the Labour Party's first female whip, herself a prominent character within the play, Graham described his fascination with the 1974-79 minority Labour government. Though he wasn't even alive at the time in question, he explained how the drama within the period easily led to an interest in exploring the core themes on stage.
“I was astonished to discover the vote of no confidence in 1979 hinged on one single vote” he explains. “The idea for me as a dramatist that history can turn on one single vote was too big to ignore. I started looking back throughout that entire parliament where sick, dying, ill and drunk people were being brought in to vote on legislation. It makes sense to explore this building at its most frantic and its most dramatic, when it's just about teetering on the edge of collapse.”
The idea for the play wasn't one that initially grabbed Headlong Artistic Director Jeremy Herrin, but he found himself gripped by the text and the dramatic potential of the setting. “It was so dynamic, thrilling, funny and real, it was a terrific play” he states. “The journey to get it on stage has been a pleasurable one. Setting it within the House of Commons, what we've come up with is something that really celebrates the contradictions and triumphs that this building is capable of. It's been a great journey.”
Unlike other political dramas that tend to focus on the main chamber of the house and the scandals that surround it, Graham was interested in cementing the play within the Whips office, giving an alternative perspective to audience members.
“It's less familiar, it helps humanise the drama” he explains. “I didn't want to talk about the policies of the 70s or the economic climate or the international situation – I wanted to talk about how this building runs and how it functions or doesn't function at times of stress. There is an unfair and bloated mythology around the whips, part of which I've now contributed to, the stereotype that it's about the dark arts, manipulation and bribery.”
Anne Milton commended his skill at bringing that authentic feel to the stage. “It really captures the atmosphere of what happens when you're running a close vote” she commented, “it captures the frenzy that's in the air. You really get to know how this place works”.
The bipartisan response to the play was commented on by both Milton and Taylor, who highlighted that both Labour and Conservative MPs had come out of the play impressed by its wide ranging outlook and efforts to humanise their roles, in a medium that often relies solely on satire and comedy. Rather than preach a political message to an audience, This House succeeds in offering a wider net to audiences to also be entertained as well as educated about a period of British history that they may nor may not remember.
“Theatre is the best arena to talk about politics” states Graham. “Entertainment has become very insular with Netflix, Amazon Prime etc. To have have a space still, much like politics, that you have to come to with a community of peers that you wouldn't usually meet and see something debated in front of you is important. I'm completely committed to creating theatrical work that has hopefully banished the idea of political theatre from the 70s and 80s that were understandably very serious and quite angry, but don't always inspire the audience to get excited. I always try to find the balance between populism and integrity.”
These comments were echoed by Herrin who added that people don't come to the theatre to be told how to think, and will even be used within the production itself to add to the drama of the setting.
“People aren't interested in coming to a place of entertainment to be told what to think. They like to chew over contradictions and difficult questions but they want to be entertained. I hope that we are entertaining and we may even tell them a few stories that they haven't heard before. We wanted to show the feverish nature of what the chamber was like and that isn't 600 people on a busy vote night, so we're recruiting the audience on the benches onstage, they're very welcome to vote with us.”
“We have no desire to preach to an audience” states Graham. “What's so helpful about this period is that it's less about ideology and more about human beings with problems. People project onto any play, whether it's Henry V or This House, Shakespeare dealt with modern anxieties by exploring previous periods.”
With wheels already in motion to adapt the play for TV or film, This House offers a unique and compelling look into British politics, that within the current political climate offers moments of reflection as well as a solid reminder that human beings exist behind the policies, campaigning and negative outlook - a lesson that's well worth bearing in mind.
This House runs at the Garrick Theatre from 19 November 2016.