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‘Hansard’ review: A riff on ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ with a Section 28 twist

Simon Woods’ debut play is a major new work that channels the spirit of 20th century domestic dramas.

By Will Stroude

Words: Simon Button

This British riff on Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? is remarkable. Set in 1998 as Thatcher’s government is ushering in the Section 28 ban on local authorities promoting homosexuality, it’s an acerbic, often hilarious battle of wits that turns into an upsetting unearthing of secrets and lies.

Instead of heavy-drinking professor George and alcoholic college professor’s daughter Martha warring on campus and using a young couple as unwitting pawns in their twisted mind games, we get Alex Jennings and Lindsay Duncan as a Tory minister and his hungover wife picking at scabs as a fox tears up the garden of their Cotswold home.

It starts out as light bickering and bitchery that morphs into something much bleaker. Diana is furious about husband Robin’s support for a bill she sees as callous and cruel while he volleys back with talk of tough love and why discouraging a gay lifestyle will actually spare gay people a world of hurt.

Alex Jennings (Robin), Lindsay Duncan (Diana) in ‘Hansard’ (Image: Catherine Ashmore)

Why does Diana, whose contempt for her husband’s views are clear from the fact she hasn’t bothered to change out of her negligee and dressing gown for their sparring match, care so much? All is revealed in a twist that’s not what you’d expect and all the more poignant for it.

Some critics have carped how first-time writer Simon Woods suddenly switches gears with said revelation, but the way it erupts seems very true-to-life to me – an emotional outpouring of bottled-up grief that Duncan delivers quite devastatingly.

She and Jennings are the only two actors on a wide stage, the daunting width of which designer Hildegard Bechtler fills with the sort of huge kitchen-dining room that’s very well-to-do-Oxfordshire-couple and through its vastness emphasises the growing chasm between them.

Alex Jennings (Robin) in ‘Hansard’. Image: (Catherine Ashmore)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen two more pitch-perfect performances. Their banter is funny at first, even flippant in places, but as the emotional storm clouds gather while the sun continues to shine outside their wit and parry turns nasty. Woods gives them so many great lines that could be show-offy but Duncan and Jennings root the zingers in reality and her breakdown is so raw it’ll have you in tears.

Much shorter than the three-hour …Virginia Woolf at a tight 90 minutes with no interval, Hansard is nonetheless a major new work that begins as a caustic comedy but becomes a deeply moving call for compassion. It’s cheering to see it will be getting an NT Live screening on 7 November that means that message will reach the widest possible audience.

Rating: 5/5

Hansard will be broadcast in cinemas in the UK and internationally on November 7th and is in repertoire at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre until 25 November.

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