Agent of change

John Bull is riveted as David Hare maps out the tense, ambiguous territory between political expediency and personal integrity

August 25, 2011

Credit: BBC/Heyday Films/Runaway Fridge/Carnival/NBC Universal
Troubled waters: Bill Nighy stars as intelligence analyst Johnny Worricker in David Hare's unsettling look at MI5, 'black sites', interrogation and torture

Page Eight

Written and directed by David Hare.

Starring Bill Nighy, Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz and Felicity Jones.

To be shown on BBC Two on 28 August at 9pm.

DVD to be released on 5 September.

Page Eight is the seventh film to be written and directed by David Hare. This in itself would be an impressive achievement, but we can add to that a long career as a playwright, director of his own and others' work and, more recently, his emergence as a performer of his own work. He enjoys a worldwide reputation and any new work is eagerly anticipated in the certain knowledge that it will offer an exciting and challenging experience, both intellectually and dramatically. Not least of his many talents is his ability both to lead and respond to change.

Page Eight gives further evidence of this undimmed enthusiasm for charting different territory, for while it has important links with what Hare and others have been attempting contemporaneously, it is also quite different from anything else he has produced.

The opening credit sequence revisits familiar film-noir territory: as the screen assembles, a sultry jazz combo is heard over images of the Thames at night and a solitary man walking the virtually deserted streets, his only companion a cigarette. This is not the first time in his long career that Hare has borrowed from film noir.

In 1974, Knuckle, a stage play later adapted for television, evoked the world of early film versions of Raymond Chandler's crime novels to dramatise the corporate corruption of London and its stockbroker belt. But in 1974, the evocation was essentially that of nostalgic parody. In 2011, the past is soon left behind as we are thrust into a modern world of espionage and intrigue with a plot line that would not be out of place in Spooks, but which rings only too terrifyingly true with its revelations of lies and deception in the highest echelons. Our protagonist's walk takes him from his place of work, MI5 HQ, across the Thames to the apartment where he lives, crossing a bridge that acts as a strong reminder of the always important link between the public and the private in Hare's work.

The film's narrative will provide other metaphorical bridges to cross, as political expediency at an institutional level is countered by a desperate attempt to retain moral integrity at the individual level.

A comparable tension is to be found in virtually all of Hare's work for stage and film since his analysis of post-war decline in Britain in Plenty (1978). It is most strongly evidenced in his pulse-taking trilogy about church, law and government - Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and The Absence of War, all performed in one day at the National Theatre in 1993.

Like previous works, this new film interweaves a love story with history - in this instance the very recent history of secret US government pan-global interrogation/torture "black sites" with the exposition of British government complicity and its implications.

Johnny Worricker, witty, polished, urbane and cultured, is an intelligence analyst who will take on the role of moral knight. That he should be played by Bill Nighy takes on a double significance in the context of Hare's oeuvre.

Nighy also played the leading role in the writer's self-directed television play of 1980, Dreams of Leaving. The fact that both men were the same age, and were physically very alike, led many viewers to make a specifically biographical reading of that play.

The temptation to identify the voice of the central protagonist with that of the film's writer/director is now more interesting, however. In 1997, Hare had visited Israel and Palestine with the declared intention of working on a project with a playwright from each of these countries.

In the event, what emerged in 1998 was a one-man piece about the Middle East, Via Dolorosa, written and performed by Hare himself. He followed this up more recently with what would eventually become a double bill, Berlin and Wall.

In a lecture in 1999, Hare said that he had become convinced "that honour could only be done to complicated questions of faith and belief by dropping the familiar apparatus of playmaking and instead resolving to appear in my own play".

He had also become increasingly interested in the dramatic and political potential of verbatim theatre, perhaps best exemplified by the ongoing work of the Tricycle Theatre in North London which, for example, famously used edited transcripts of the judicial inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence to create The Colour of Justice (1999).

In 2003, Max Stafford-Clark directed Hare's The Permanent Way. In the light of Hare's awakening interest in verbatim theatre, the two planned a play about the Hatfield train crash of 2000. The dialogue of the play, largely drawn from interviews conducted by the cast with people in various ways connected with the crash, was not verbatim theatre in its purest form, relying heavily on the authorial editing of improvisations drawn from the interviews.

However, it clearly represented an attempt to let different voices, different opinions, be heard. Stuff Happens (National Theatre, 2004), a play about the Iraq War, took a rather different approach to verbatim theatre. The characters were no longer "fictionalised". Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, George Bush and Co appeared on stage, recognisable in physical presence and voice.

Although it was obviously possible to imagine what the playwright's own take on the war was, there was no direct authorial voice. Through careful editing of their own words, the stage representations condemned themselves out of their own mouths.

There is, then, something of a contradiction of purpose and intent with Hare's own monologues, in which there clearly is an authorial voice, even if it is that of "an outsider, a half-informed visitor", as he described his own stance in Via Dolorosa.

However, when Hare returned to the National Theatre in 2009 with a play about the financial crisis, The Power of Yes, he subtitled it A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis. As with Stuff Happens, dialogue is drawn from the real-life words of the characters portrayed on stage - but this time they are joined by an additional cast member playing the role of "The Author".

The play opens with The Author directly addressing the audience: "This isn't a play. It's a story...How capitalism came to a grinding halt. Where were you on September 15th 2008...Capitalism ceased to function for about four days. This summer I set out to find out what had happened."

In The Power of Yes, The Author presents himself as being in a state of total ignorance, not necessarily a reliable commentator, but always nagging away at the central questions - much as a member of the audience reconfigured as tribune investigator might.

With Page Eight, Hare takes yet another path, but one that is inextricably linked with all these recent developments. This new work is the nearest he has come to presenting a straightforward piece of chronological narrative. This move away from verbatim drama allows him to present the evidence in the guise of fiction.

The result is a piece of riveting television. And yet, there is more. In the context of his recent stage work, the temptation to again see Nighy as playing a version of The Author is almost irresistible. Not, of course, by recasting Hare as an intelligence analyst working for, and eventually against, the forces of the Establishment, but rather by seeing him as an intelligent analyst whose moral voice is, as always, questioning and probing, rather than offering glib solutions.

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