After seeing the West End revival of David Hare's The Secret Rapture, I went home and read the reviews of its première fifteen years ago. Some of my colleagues and predecessors praised its sharp excoriation of Thatcherite values, as personified in the character of junior minister Marion; some focused on the problems of being a good person among bad, and indeed the kind of good person that brings out the worst in others, represented by Marion's sister and the protagonist of the play, Isobel. Some looked at the interface between the two, and Hare's perennial message that the personal and the political cannot be demarcated; some noted the kind of secular martyrdom sought and eventually achieved by Isobel, as she values a passive integrity above the kind of kludge necessary for living in this world. But nobody managed to make all the pieces fit together. I don't think they actually do.
Time has blunted the play's anti-Tory teeth; public and commercial affairs today may be scarcely more compassionate, but they are appreciably more subtle and complex. Consequently, Belinda Lang opts for smartly maximising the shrieking, pin-striped ogre side of Marion rather than spending too much time looking for sidelights. Similarly, Peter Egan satisfies himself with a mild comic-butt characterisation as her husband, a paper-napkin magnate who heads Christians In Business and performs baptisms in his swimming pool.
It is Isobel on whom play and production alike stand or fall. In both respects, she sort of lists a bit. Isobel nobly attempts to take care of her widowed but young stepmother, a manipulative, malicious alcoholic, at the expense both of her small business (encouraged into boom-and-bust by her pious brother-in-law) and her personal partnership with the devoted Irwin, whose desolation after their break-up becomes obsessive. Hare shows both the kind of honesty and principle in Isobel that most of us like to believe we have deep down, and the serene acquiescence that in practice infuriates us. But I fear he is not being even-handed here so much as just unsure how to reconcile these strains with each other and the various plot strands. Similarly, Jenny Seagrove's natural style of performance is a little too neutral to bring out such nuances as there may be in the character. It's still a fascinating political-psychological-emotional puzzle, but one that simply has no possible solution anywhere. There's always at least one piece left over.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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