James Graham is one of Britain’s most acclaimed young political playwrights. As his play ‘This House’ transfers to the West End, he talks to Paul Waugh about the dramatic challenge posed by 2016, when truth was often stranger than fiction.
Like the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, James Graham just can’t get away from Brexit.
The acclaimed playwright, whose 2012 play ‘This House’ has just transferred to the West End to rave reviews, was in America during the EU referendum campaign. Even working in New York, where Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe was the lead in another of his plays, he couldn’t escape the questions about home.
“I was shocked at the impact it made on people there. It was in every pub and bar I went in, not in just New York but further-out states, it was all they wanted to talk to me about when they heard my accent,” he says.
“They couldn’t believe Brexit. There was that perspective of realising it was not just a domestic earthquake. It was like the Berlin Wall, like something has shifted in the global psyche were everything feels unstable, everything feels possible. ‘Maybe Trump will get in?’ It was dominoes.”
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Several months later, Trump of course delivered on his promise of a Presidential upset that was ‘Brexit plus, plus’. Back in the UK, audiences watching Graham’s ‘This House’ - which tells the story of the 1970s Labour Government and its attempts to cling onto power - are seeing parallels with the original referendum and debate about Europe from 40 years ago.
And as he chats in a garret room of the Garrick Theatre, ahead of another performance of the play, the young playwright confesses that he is now working on a specific Brexit drama, to be aired on one of our main TV channels.
“I am working on a TV drama, I’m going to be writing about the referendum and different elements of it. I want to speak to the national and international mood and feeling towards power and orthodoxy and economics and populism.
“That’s the real story: a move into a kind of politics that wants us to smash and burn and bring things down and start again and the sloganists’ appeal to our worst selves and our worst natures, which we’ve seen throughout history.”
At just 34, Graham has established himself as one of our most gifted playwrights, combining meticulous research with an acute ear for the rhythms, speech and processes of politics.
‘This House’ opened four years ago in the National Theatre to great acclaim, not least from MPs and peers who lived through the desperate attempt by the Labour whips to keep their government alive from 1974 to 1979.
When it opened in 2012, with a Tory-Lib Dem coalition as backdrop, all the focus was on its portrayal of consensus-building.
But as the play finally gets its West End transfer in 2016, Graham has found that the audience is responding to elements that reflect much more current concerns: the 1975 European referendum, ‘compromise versus principles’, and bitter Labour in-fighting.
“That period gives you so many parallels to what’s happening now. Some incredibly literal parallels, whether it be it the European referendum or the Scottish referendum or inter-party splits, particularly with the Labour party, a Tory leadership bid, questioning what purpose the Liberals have in the two party system any more, you get all that stuff.
“You go ‘do I need to pump any of that stuff up a bit?’ In the end I decided not to even touch it. So I haven’t rewritten any of that stuff. I’ve done some small re-writes to make it fit the stage but otherwise it’s all the same.
“What’s different is the reaction. That’s what you can’t control and for me to try and control it feels the wrong way round.”
And in the recent run in Chichester, he was struck by the audience reaction to one storyline, about Labour MP Reg Prentice, who quit Labour to join the Tories after battles with leftwingers in his constituency party.
“The Reg Prentice story in particular, when I was originally writing that, the idea of deselection as a concept felt so alien to me. For the ghost of that to be looming large again, it’s fascinating. And there is a reaction to that from the audience.
“In 2012 it really was a play about a hung Parliament, coalition-building, and how do you sacrifice some of your policies and your principles to survive. Now it just feels less about that, that just doesn’t sing as much, that’s the audience guiding me towards that.”
With Jeremy Corbyn’s twin leadership election victories looming in the background, the role of the play’s key left-winger, former MP Audrey Wise, has caught the ear of the audience too. The serial rebel debates with her whips about the merits of electability versus integrity and principle.
Corbyn himself tweeted in September: “Remembering my colleague & friend Audrey Wise who died 16 years ago today. A campaigning MP who fought against poverty & for women’s rights.”
“Alongside Reg Prentice, she seems to be a character that resonates in a different way than before,” Graham says.
“I was tempted to re-write her stuff to make it sound like she was a Corbynista but in the end that was just too knowing. A lot of the critical response first time came a way thinking quite highly of her and her position.
“I think people thought that that was my attitude, that she in a game with the whips managing you, that an individual, principled stand is what the play was aspiring to. My opinion shifted. Maybe I did find a romance about her position more than I do now.
“I think possibly I would be more uneasy about her now and what she represents. And since Trump, anyone who is anti-establishment and wants to block and stop and not play the game, there’s a principle to that and there’s also a selfishness to that. And I think that’s what we’re wrestling with right now.”
It’s striking that many of the Labour and Tory MPs in the play had a shared experience of serving in wartime or national service together, of being on the same side.
“They noticed a change when MPs coming through in the 80s hadn’t had that experience. I wouldn’t presume to know what that experience had on them,” he says. “But I would imagine that if you’ve come that close to the abyss, and this all goes, your sense of responsibility, what do we owe ourselves and generations to build something…it’s interesting.
“The equalising effect of war of putting people from different regions and class and backgrounds to fight together, I can only assume and speculate that the breaking of that consensus in 1979 by Thatcher and a more individualistic outlook in politics and society, maybe that’s one effect of the death of the people who fought in that war.”
The Thatcher government, and Michael Foot’s election, was seen by both parties as a reaction to the post-war consensus. But is there something in the British psyche that means the voters can only take short bursts of compromise or coalition government?
“One of the depressing things about seeing this play be so accidentally resonant, according to audiences, is that it does reveal the fatalistic cycles that we exist in, particularly in this country. That we just repeat, fail, try, repeat,” Graham says.
“If feels like the 1970s was the end of one political orthodoxy, of generally accepted rules, economic, political, social. And then the birth of a new one, which now seems itself to now be dying. So I don’t know whether it’s we once tolerated moderation and now post-Thatcher we like strong leaders and strong direction, or whether we just go through failures in phases.
“In modern politics the cult of personality means we like strong leaders who have vision. That’s why some Corbynistas really like Jeremy, because he’s not compromising, he doesn’t apologise and it’s not business as usual as it would have been for someone on the centre ground.”
Graham suggests that compromise, a dirty word in politics right now, ought to be reclaimed as the difficult, rather than the easy option.
“I always argue with some of the people on the left who think that the centre ground and being moderate is so easy, it’s like ‘you are such wuss!, pick a side!’ And I just think it’s just so easy to pretend there’s black and white and to block off conflicting views. I think that’s really easy.
“I think accepting that you might not always be right, and that your background and experience and bias makes you seen through a prism, that’s what’s really hard, that’s what’s really difficult. Just accepting things like articles of faith is very easy, and clearly quite seductive.”
And for those who would relish the prospect of Graham tackling directly the rise of Corbynism and the way Labour has transformed itself since 2015, he reveals they won’t have to wait long. As well as his Brexit drama, he has a play specifically about Labour’s story.
He is reluctant to give details, but it’s happening, and it draws on his own working class roots in a former mining community in Nottinghamshire.
“It’s a play, it is on paper, there is a draft for a commercial theatre project. It’s set in a local Labour constitency like my old one in the midlands. A split personality constituency: not quite north, not quite south, didn’t quite strike, didn’t quite go back to work. It covers Labour over the past 25 years, with a view of local parties.
“I think since Corbyn and that last election, grassroots politics feels like it has emerged as a stronger voice and an identity that people don’t quite feel they have a handle on. Are they these militant anarchists or are they experts in the Labour party constitution or are they busy-bodies who want to organise fetes, do they want a revolution? It’s roughly Kinnock through to Corbyn.”
This week, UKIP’s new leader Paul Nuttall has effectively declared war on Labour in its northern heartlands, claiming his party will represent the authentic working class vote. Graham says the dangers for Labour are obvious.
“It’s always exciting to see young people with energy thinking outside the box and trying to make the left exciting and visionary.
“But I don’t know how you ever reconcile that with what to me was the Labour party growing up and people who I grew up with who don’t associate with that, dare I say it, middle class, metropolitan young student thinking.
“They want something more moderate, they probably want their leader to sing the national anthem as they sing it, they want to be able to talk about immigration in a way that whatever the conclusions are the conversation isn’t immediately shut down.
“They probably haven’t benefitted from globalisation. The Labour party can’t win an election without all those people coming back and then some - some Tories to vote for them as well - to solve that problem.”
Here again, he can’t get away from Brexit. Although he voted Remain, many of Graham’s family and friends vote Leave. His roots in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, continue to be his inspiration dramatically.
“It’s an industrial town, post-industrial now. I’ve seen industries change throughout my life, the pits going down, warehouses going up.
“My mum - what time is it? [he looks at a clock showing 5.10pm] - starts a shift in a warehouse in 20 minutes time. And she keeps me up to date on what conversations the warehouses have. My stepdad does night shifts at a haulage company.
“They are jobs that are working class still. It’s a working class where people voted Labour for years, but they always read The Sun. They supported the Falklands War, but not the Iraq War.
“The miners’ strike was a huge defining moment in identity and what we stood for. It just meant for me that politics was never a stuffy, distant thing. It wasn’t a Westminster thing, it wasn’t suits and wigs, and legislation. It was real and local, and sometimes quite violent, it was never anything other than human, than your neighbours and people, your town.”
Graham’s plays about politics have certainly won him a dedicated following. He followed ‘This House’ with ‘Privacy’ at the Donmar Warehouse in 2014, a look at the post-Snowden era balance between online privacy and security, with a cast of characters ranging from William Hague to David Davis.
Another TV drama, ‘The Vote’, was set in a polling station and broadcast live on election day in 2015. In the run up to the election, Channel 4 aired his drama ‘Coalition’, a study of how the five days in 2010 when David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown grappled with the hung Parliament results.
MPs have flocked to the revival of ‘This House’, just as they did during its first run in 2012. “Michael Gove was in last night and I saw someone saying a former Chancellor was behind them giving ‘a running commentary’, that’s the new phrase, isn’t it?
“Some of those who saw it the last time are seeing it again. You can argue is that a good thing or a a bad thing. It’s not a playwright’s job to satisfy or please politicians, often quite the opposite. But I think I think in this case because this is a play about process and systems and how you operate, it’s not really party political, I’m pleased and flattered that they come to it. Because my job is to try and understand that building in different ways.”
With 2016 in many ways showing that truth is stranger than fiction, how does he deal with that as an artist? “It is an opportunity. When you meet other writers, and people, they say ‘that would be a good play, bet you can’t keep up with all this’. I think that does present an opportunity and actually a responsibility.
“We in theatre, possibly more than film or TV, have a responsibility because it can be produced quicker and it’s live and it’s almost the last platform we have where you get people together in a space, a physical place.
“And that’s still quite a provocative political act, to assemble and to watch a political story. We have to allow people to get together to hear difficult and complicated and conflicting ideas”
He says that the outlandish real-life plot twists of the past year are in fact an attraction, not a deterrent for a dramatist.
“There’s the journalistic truth and the day-to-day events, and there’s the higher poetic, metaphorical truth about what it is to be human and how we affect or destroy each other and succeed and fail.
“So I think even with something like ‘Coalition’, the point of that is not to go ‘did you know all this happened, did you know that Gordon Brown went in a [Whitehall] tunnel to have a secret meeting with Nick Clegg?’
“My job and the wider responsibility of drama is to go ‘but what does it all mean?’ When we step back and look at human beings behaving like this, against impossible odds, trying to build a government, what does it say about our system and about us that we can’t tolerate working that way?’ That’s the joy of it. That’s the value of it.
“I think that’s why I’m always so keen to be fair, even to people I would consider to be my political opponents, I enjoy the idea that you get presented with something from a different angle. It doesn’t have to be political, it can be the plight of a single mother or someone who’s cheated their husband or a teacher who’s an abuser, whatever the story, it’s about if you come at it at a different angle, it’s about how do you make sense of this together.”
And it’s that togetherness that Graham repeatedly underlines as the real power of theatre.
“That’s the joy of theatre. You lock people in a room for two hours. It’s not like Netflix, it’s not like TV, it forces people in this information age to quietly sit with an idea and let it gestate for a long time.”
He says that ‘This House’, with its focus on the shadowy Whips’ offices in the engine room of the House of Commons, was a perfect example of depicting what appear to be complex issues in an accessible way.
“One of the things I enjoyed most about this play, is it presents weird traditions and concepts in that building that I’d never really heard of, things like ‘pairing’ [when one MP agrees with a rival that they both don’t need to vote] I’d never even known existed.
“When I heard this story about Walter Harrison and Jack Weatherill, this deal that was kept quiet, whereby Jack offers to pair himself off for the one vote that could have taken him down. Walter Harrison is so moved by that offer, which would have won the vote, rejected it and kept this quiet as a gentleman’s agreement for many, many years.
“The generosity, the decency of two political opponents going against what was most rewarding for their party to do what they think was right. When I heard that I thought that was a theme. The idea that history can turn on such small things like that is always fun.”
But again, Graham fears that our current political mood - and social media polarisation - is not one with much space for honour or gentlemen’s agreements. How can compromise even begin under such circumstances?
“That’s the biggest question of the political times. The thing that has changed most in the past four years, both in the political sphere as the parties have moved to more extreme positions on the spectrum, but among us as well.
“I think you always get the politics you deserve. I think there’s a lower tolerance for compromise because it’s now seen as betrayal or as politics as usual or a club where people are constantly trying to manufacture themselves into power rather than do what’s right.
“I don’t know the effect of the fate of the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners and how much they were punished in 2015 for compromising for suspending some of their core principles in order to qualify and challenge and turn down some of the extremes of the Conservative party. They weren’t rewarded for that, they were punished, they were seen as weak.
“The Tories were rewarded but they were allowed to be the most accurate versions of themselves in the public’s mind. It was worse that the nice Lib Dems had gone a bit bad than the Tories had gone a bit nice. So maybe that’s seen as spineless.
“Then there are the divisions in America. What I enjoy about politics that’s more mature than that. As we’ve seen in the referendum when there’s only positions and they are opposite extremes, that presents this false binary as Trump and Clinton did, it creates a nature of extremes. ‘You either believe in me totally or not at all’. And it just didn’t used to feel that way.”
Graham, who has worked with MPs of all sides in researching his plays, clearly has a soft spot for Parliamentary democracy as opposed to the direct democracy of referendums.
“It’s a constant process every day whereby questions get constantly asked. And complicated answers are given. I wouldn’t have necessarily thought that before this summer.
“And it’s no reflection on the result that was given, but I think we proved ourselves to be lacking in a kind of maturity, sophisticated, decent conversation with each other that was tolerant and understanding and calm. On right and left, on remain and leave.
“We as the public have a responsibility as well, it’s not just pointing the finger at the ‘Establishment’. People say ‘I hate PMQs, and Punch and Judy’, when we ourselves block and shout at people on Facebook and twitter and spread fake news and share all this crap. To a point when you get the events of the last few weeks, you get the Jo Cox trial, and it’s hate, hate, hate. I’m sure it didn’t used to be that way.”
No subject seems too big for Graham, however. Trump’s victory, Brexit, Corbyn’s rise, all stem from a wider sense that politics has been shaken up. He says that the backlash among working class voters to the idea of globalisation is a subject he can’t ignore.
“It is the most important thing. I don’t think I can ignore it because I don’t think you can isolate it from what’s happening here and what’s happening across the world. I’m sure there’s a direct line from Brexit to Trump and there will be a direct line that will continue into what happens in Europe next year.
“I guess the question is how. Because it does seem so big. Do you go right to the top of mountain and look down on the whole thing and try and capture it all, telling a story, a film, a play, a TV movie about Trump/Brexit/LePen. They all legitimise each other, and allow the others to be possible.
“Or do you do the opposite, a smaller story and try and make that in a way represent the whole thing? Do you do a story about the conflicts in the Labour party between left and right and electability and integrity, do you tell it through the [EU] referendum?”
In both his Brexit drama and his new play about Labour, the theme of class will feature strongly. “It’s curious why we convinced ourselves before the financial crisis, that class was more fluid and blurry in the aspirational age of Tony Blair.
“And I think maybe we just thought we had beat it as a thing. And now we just have to be painfully aware that those demarcations do exist, there is an otherness to different people. It makes us uncomfortable as British people.
“[Trump], he’s not my definition of hope. We unfortunately have to admit he did ask some of the right questions that haven’t been asked for a long time. But I think he’s providing all the wrong answers. I despise some of the things he’s said, the fear is despicable. But he does represent people.”
As for class, Graham is acutely aware that ‘the Metropolitan elite’ are the main audiences for most ‘political’ plays. “The most working class people who will come and see it will probably my mum and stepdad when they attend the opening night,” he says, with a smile.
But the play’s production company, Headlong, is noted for attracting new and younger audiences to the theatre, with ticket deals and other initiatives. “When we started this project, it was very important to me that this can’t just be getting the standard West End audience in. If it’s going to matter, you have to do that. But it’s definitely hard.”
Graham attended one of the biggest comprehensive schools in the country. His talent was spotted by a teacher who saw he liked drama. He ends by pointing out that cuts to school and youth theatre is what worries him about other working class children being denied the same opportunity.
“If council cuts continue, we are never going to get these voices in the theatre. That’s one of the joys of this play, hearing these MPs with these working class voices on the stage.
“I was really lucky, I had a teacher who believed that working class kids should put on plays. Arts education is really important. I don’t think I would have existed as a playwright if I had been born 10 years later.”
This House is at the Garrick Theatre, WC2 until Feb 25