Above The Arts Theatre
Kingmaker is a three-hander first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year to considerable acclaim and now revived in the intimate space Above the Arts to coincide with the General Election. A portentous desk and chair, a Persian rug, an easy chair serve to indicate a politician’s office in the Palace of Westminster, and the rest is up to the actors. We are very much in the interior conspiratorial mental world of House of Cards, where there are no friendships, only temporary allegiances; where huge gaps emerge between glossy surface statements and inner (often malevolent) intentions; where politics is all about success at the expense of colleagues and only rarely about ideals; where the best of human nature is dismissed as naïve and sceptical cynicism is the order of the day. This is the moral world of Milton’s endlessly fascinating Satan and impotent uninteresting God….
However, the play aims to move on from the assumptions of Francis Urquhart in the 1990s, and give an insider’s view of politics, or more narrowly, Tory politics, in the modern era. Central to the play is the figure of Max Newman (Alan Cox) who owes more than a little to the persona of Boris Johnson. A former Mayor of London too, Max is a rhetorically adept bon viveur of great charm and charisma, who affects a laid-back, bumbling manner the better to conceal ruthlessly determined political instincts. His political appeal is seen to rest on his open embrace of his imperfections and foibles, which makes him both more likeable and electable than his rivals, and more likely to confer on him a kind of immunity from the machinations of Whips and other backroom operators trading in the murky coinage of hidden scandals. With a nod to a possible post-electoral scenario, now deferred by real-life events, Newman is preparing a leadership bid just as the prime minister gets ready to give way and resign. To his surprise he is summoned to a meeting with Eleanor Hopkirk (Joanna Bending), a junior Whip, together with the only man standing against him in the contest, a junior MP, Dan Regan (Laurence Dobiesz). Each man thinks he is to meet Hopkirk alone, and gradually, in a suspenseful sequence of revelations, we learn that she has a very different agenda of her own with an outcome for the leadership election very much of her choosing.
It would be quite wrong to reveal very much more of the plot than that, but suffice to say that all possible combinations of allegiance and enmity are explored across the seventy five minutes of the play, punctuated by monologues from each of the characters in which they offer ironic commentary on their own motivations and the possible denouements of the action. The balance of power between the characters shifts back and forth with many unexpected twists and shifts. This is a familiar formula, and for it to work well you need tight writing and very well controlled character development. On the whole this is what we get. The dialogue has many witty, quotable lines, most of them inevitably in the mouth of Max Newman (eg ‘Never give power to the humourless.’ ‘In a scandal it is the story that is the thing, not the evidence.’). But this never detracts from the naturalistic flow of the interchanges, and the three characters are well distinguished from each other, with plenty of grandiloquent speechifying from Newman, more callow aspirational political jargon from Regan, and precise machinations concealing emotional fragility from Hopkirk. Alan Cox conveys well Newman’s protean ability to pivot between bluster to bravado to bafflement to flattery and outright anger. In appearance and manner he takes his character closer to the blokeish charm of Kenneth Clarke than to our current mayor. Laurence Dobiesz demonstrates how his character’s initial callowness and uncertainty give way to reveal sharp political instincts and an ambition quite as unrestrained as Newman’s. Joanna Bending has in many ways the most demanding role. She succeeds in showing the effort and cost involved in being a woman required to be even more ruthless than her male colleagues if she has a chance of succeeding in a political framework essentially designed by and for men. She also goes on to reveal in the final scenes a touching vulnerability which helps to give emotional grounding to what is otherwise a fairly ruthless, calculating and cold comedy.
The play seems to leave us with two morals. Most immediately Kingmaker recognizes the extent to which the rewards in politics go to those whose priorities remain resolutely fixed on the rules of the game and not to those who pursue resolutions to personal, messy, unpredictable human objectives outside or secondary to those rules. This is not the old argument that politics is about succeeding rather than about implementing policy, but rather the narrower point that politicians will ultimately stick with and support each other because they are comfortable in the knowledge that they understand and speak the same language. The outsider driven by a different agenda to write wrongs outside the political game will never be acknowledged. The second and familiar moral is that we get the politicians we deserve: those who rise to the top and turn out to be most electable nowadays are those who embody the antidote to politics rather than its traditional incarnations. As our political elite becomes more and more remote from the electorate in terms of wealth, background and experience, those politicians who strike a chord with the voters are the ones who can simulate and assume a kind of demotic charm to replace a genuine sense of connection. Whatever their core political convictions, if any, Boris and Blair succeeded and succeed through their acting abilities in presenting different faces to different audiences, touching lightly and deftly on serious subjects, preferring amusing antics or soothing platitudes to gravitas. The writers have correctly noticed that in a world where so much of politics is now about acting out a variety of roles, there is more and more of a need for the theatre to play a reflexive role of commentary.