VICIOUSNESS IS OFT a convenient veil to wear in the face of extreme anguish. Playwright Simon Woods takes a rich and complex understanding of social values and their tipping points in his extraordinary play, Hansard. Coupled with incisive direction by Robert Whitehead and a give-and-take performance by Fiona Ramsay opposite Graham Hopkins, this is easily the best play of the decade staged in Johannesburg.
The excellence of this work is premised not only on biting language and carefully constructed humour, but also on a whiplash reflection on values. Cast in 1980s UK at the time of the to-ing and fro-ing in Labour Party echelons regarding the legislation of Section 28 which criminalised homosexual activity and dated back to 1885, we meet Diana Hesketh (Ramsay) and her husband Robin, a Tory parliamentarian (Hopkins). And given the woke generation in which we currently live and the oft militant values of recognition espoused by the LGBTQIA+ lobby, it is supremely prescient.
Expressing values that are comfortable on both far ends of the spectrum regarding homosexuality in British society of the time, they argue with the spite and malice that comes of long-carried hatred but also great intimacy. Robin supports the anti-homosexuality bill. Diana does not. And as the philosophical and political positions that each uphold uncurl themselves for attack, so do other issues come under the sway of the language, which is crisp and taut, strikes deep and with intended pain.
Resonant of the give-and-take in plays of the ilk of Steven Berkoff’s 1981 play Decadence, which many years ago, saw Ramsay opposite Michael Richard, the work is deeply entertaining. But you must pay attention. The jibes and pricks which each inflicts on the other are as much about the relationship between the two as they are about the political compass and the position of women in society. But, with shoehorns in place and dresses that cannot be closed by the wearer, because the zip is at the back and is unreachable, the whole play is carefully balanced in the value scale that is about a lot more than a privileged husband and his privileged wife. Its denouement comes with the blurriness of memory in a cine film.
You, in the audience, may not be a rabid right winger, indeed, you may consider yourself a comfortable leftie or even a safe inhabitant of middle of the proverbial road. Either way, Woods unequivocally exposes you to both limits of the perspective that right-winger Robin Hesketh articulates as he turns the hypocrisies of the so-called bleeding-heart brigade on the left, inside out. They both have validity and yet they both lose in the bigger picture of how life turns.
Central to the piece is the teaching of a child to ride a bicycle. This is cast as a bit of political doggerel, but also bit of an indictment on both the Heskeths’ parenting skills. Do you pick up the child after every fall, to kiss the sore knee and shout at the naughty bicycle, or do you instruct the child to ‘be a man’ and dust himself off and get back on the bike?
And like narratives such as Retief Scholtz’s 2016 work Dop and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1953) the work is elegantly built around a vortex of horror that whips the characters out of cardboard cut-out stereotype and into a deep shared humanity, which is as much about the anger and betrayal of unexpected loss as it is about its unfathomability.
The calibre of this splinteringly fine work recalls the small window of international lockdown time when the National Theatre Live offered a free-of-charge bouquet of magnificent works from its archive, online. And with Whitehead, Ramsay and Hopkins, this production stands among the best of the best of this level of theatre-making, as it sweeps you ineluctably through its ebbs and tides of language and politics.
If you plan to see one play this year – this decade – see this one.