New Wolsey premiere asks: ‘What would happen if a PM chose policy over personality?’
- Credit: Patrick Baldwin
They say we get the politicians we deserve. Next week The New Wolsey Theatre unveils a powerful, darkly comic new political thriller which poses a very timely question: “Do we want politicians that talk policy or merely trade on their personality?”
Feed The Beast is a startling new play by Sherlock and Doctor Who writer Steve Thompson which looks at what happens when a new prime minister refuses to play the personality game.
Gerald Kyd plays Michael Goodlad, the new incumbent at Number 10, he is a fiercely intelligent, highly principled man who wants to get something done. He wants to leave a positive legacy while his advisors want him to play safe – play politics.
The play is invested with Goodlad’s energy and his sometimes dark mood swings as his cabinet and party fall short of his own incredibly high standards.
The New Wolsey’s artistic director Pete Rowe says that the play should leave audiences breathless as it is written as a fast-paced series of scenes which bleed into one another.
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The play captures the zeitgeist of the times and the timing of the play’s run over the election period is not accidental. It asks us what we want not only from our government but from constituency MPs.
Pete said that the play is designed to elicit laughter and gasps within seconds of one another. “The whole play is filled with such energy and events and moods turn inside out in an instant.”
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The Beast in the play’s title is the insatiable appetite the media has for gossip, scandal, controversy, in fact any tittle tattle that’s not serious policy and the play wonders whether we are being short-changed or worse-still bamboozled by this constant diet of soap-opera style distractions rather than worrying about how we want to run our country.
Personality politics has become increasingly important in the election race as the growing number of election debates have proved. The debates are not really a forum for parties to set out their election manifesto or to declare what they believe in. It is more a rhetoric-riddled verbal battlefield where the power of personality and the sharp, point-scoring put-down means more than a coherent plan for government.
The role of the media in this election-circus also comes under scrutiny in this well-observed political drama. “The play asks some very perceptive questions about not only who we should vote for but whether we should vote at all?
“It looks at what we, as citizens, want from our politicians and what stops them from living up to our expectations. Even those people who enter politics with the purest intentions can find themselves compromised along the way – being forced to vote for things that they don’t agree with, that their constituents don’t agree with, because it is party policy.
“It’s a fascinating piece that asks some very pertinent questions but is also a gripping thriller that will suck audiences into this highly charged world and will keep them on the edge of their seats. It’s very fast-paced and packs in a lot of information but it also puts a human face on some very real dilemmas.”
Pete said that one of the aspects of the play that really appealed to him as a director was that Steve Thompson resisted the temptation to create caricatures or impersonations of current or recent politicians – there’s no-one you could a finger at and say that’s Tony Blair or John Major or Gordon Brown or David Cameron.
Instead, Thompson has created characters who display recognisable traits which are prevalent in many high-flying politicians.
“In the play our new prime minister Michael Goodlad declares that he will not authorise any more personality pieces, no more informal briefings, no more at home with the prime minister and his family. He says that he will only talk policy.
“At the start of the play he talks about finding a GQ Man of the Year trophy in his predecessor’s desk drawer and declares that this was what was wrong with his predecessor. He vows to cut the flow of trivia to the press and replace it with policy and genuine information.
“However, it seems that this is not what the tabloids want.”
Pete said that during rehearsals they all felt that images of Fleet Street editor Rebekah Brooks appearing to best friends with both Tony Blair and David Cameron highlighted the fact that there was a mutual interdependency between politicians and the press. They both had a vested interest in keeping the political gossip mill turning.
“For me, that is what is really interesting about the play because Michael is saying ‘No’. He has drawn a line in the sand and has vowed: ‘We will not talk to them.’ We will only talk policy – we will not be friends – we will not cosy up to them and it is interesting to see in the play how that resolve gets put under pressure.”
He said that the play has a high emotional charge which runs through the evening which comes from the fact that the audience is in the room with the characters. The play has one setting, the prime minister’s office, and the audience is an additional person in that room; witnessing the events being played out there.”
He added that a lot of power also comes from Steve Thompson’s writing which allows the actors immediate access to their characters and gives them sharp, believable dialogue. It’s fast and funny and the stakes are really high, right from the beginning, and it’s structured rather like a film and the scenes cut in and out of one another.
“It’s almost like cross-cutting and I hope that this gives audiences an impression of what life is like for people at this level of government. They career from one meeting to another. Life’s a whirl and it takes a lot of effort to keep tabs on what is going on. Frequently they are forced to make major decisions on the hoof, so to speak.”
He said that while many people wished that The West Wing’s President Bartlett was the real American president, he hoped that theatre audiences would see Michael Goodlad as a passionately committed man who genuinely wanted to do the best for his country and wanted to hold him up as a gold-standard for our real potential prime minister.
“I want audiences to wish that he was our prime minister. I hope he has that charismatic energy and the compassion and the resolve to do the right thing. He’s the genuine article. He’s the real deal but in the second half we get to see whether it is possible to sustain that integrity.”
He said the other aspect of the play they were very careful about was to ensure that this was a play about politics rather than party politics. “Steve was equally insistent that it was important the play was about the office of prime minister rather than any particular individual or party. It’s about how to gain office and achieve things in it. They did that very well in Yes Prime Minister because you were never sure which party Jim Hacker belonged to. In the same way Michael is a great reforming prime minister. He has a large appetite for changing things so you are not sure what party he belongs to.
“As the election campaign builds to a climax I hope the play brings a little light relief because there are some very well observed laughs in there but also hopefully it will prime voters to think carefully about the type of person they want as the next prime minister and what they can do to hold all our politicians to a higher standard.”
Feed The Beast, by Steve Thompson, is at The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, from May 6-16.
Steve Thompson on Leveson
Playwright Steve Thompson said that the origins of Feed The Beast lay The Leveson Inquiry. “My wife was a barrister at the hearings and I was at home with my little girl who wanted to see her Mum so we put the telly on and I found myself drawn into this world and I found the inquiry quite compelling.
“We remember the Leveson Inquiry for the fact that lot of stars turned up to give evidence – people like Hugh Grant, Anne Diamond and Steve Coogan – but for me the most intriguing thing was that we had four prime ministers there and two of them had been absolutely defined by the media and the other two destroyed by the media and the evidence they gave was just so compelling and it was the evidence of the prime ministers that made me want to write the play.”
He said that he was also wary of bringing real people into the action and so wrote about recognisable traits which appeared in a number of PMs rather than produce caricatures. “I always try to produce a mosaic of traits which means we are talking about aspects of the job which span decades rather than just being about the personality of just one incumbent.
“You can spot bits of Brown, bits of Blair, bits of Cameron but the important thing is that they are all contained within mixed up within a range of fictional characters. The play asks the question whether we need a prime minister who is merely a good communicator and who is a good man.”
He said that the rise of personality politics is not surprising because we judge everyone we meet on their personality and politicians are no different. “We shouldn’t worry about personality and concentrate more on the substance of what they are saying but it is very hard to tear ourselves away from that. Michael says in the play: ‘You don’t choose a bank manager on whether you like them or not, you don’t choose a plumber on how friendly they are, so why do we choose a prime minister that way?
“But, that’s the currency we deal in since our politicians are so readily available. That wasn’t true in the past and so prime ministers like Lloyd George or Stanley Baldwin were elected more on what they stood for than how friendly they appeared to be. Someone once jammed a microphone in front of Clement Atlee and said: “Do you have a message for the country?” He looked at him and said: “No” and walked on. You can’t imagine any politician or prime minister saying that today. We live in a world of sound-bites and prime ministers today have to Feed The Beast.”