Sir David Hare is almost certainly the premiere political dramatist writing in English, yet last weekend he slinked through Washington almost unnoticed. Not that it bothered him: By now, the 68-year-old playwright is accustomed to not having his plays staged in America’s capital, even when political behavior and American policy are its topics.
“What can I do?” Hare says with an amiable shrug.
Arena Stage presented the U.S. debut of “Plenty,” the play that made Hare’s name. But that was in 1980, the last time he was in town. Since then, the prolific Hare has written an insider’s campaign drama, “Absence of War,” after being embedded in Neil Kinnock’s failed try for British prime minister in 1992. (It was revived in London earlier this year.) “Via Dolorosa,” at Theater J in 2000, was Hare’s one-man account of being on the ground among Israelis and Palestinians.
“Stuff Happens” was his
quasi-documentary account of the U.S. and British decision to invade Iraq after 9/11, with Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell as characters. “The Vertical Hour” debuted on Broadway in 2006, with Bill Nighy as a British surgeon wary of
Western-led military force and Julianne Moore as a U.S. war reporter in favor of intervention. Washington’s big theaters have almost never been interested, except in Hare’s adaptations of material such as Brecht’s “Mother Courage” recently at Arena, though Hare says that years ago there were talks with the Kennedy Center about “Stuff Happens.”
“The people running the Kennedy Center said, ‘We try to keep out of politics,’ ” Hare recalls. “Which seems to me the most extraordinary attitude for the capital’s most prestigious theater to take.”
To say that Hare has done well anyway is to understate the case. He has been a central figure at London’s National Theatre practically since its permanent complex opened in the mid-1970s. His movie adaptations include screenplays for “The Hours” and “The Reader.” Now Hare is in the States on a brief book tour, promoting “The Blue Touch Paper,” his memoir of becoming a playwright in the tumultuous, still-unformed London scene of the 1960s and ’70s.
“Probably more agony than ecstasy,” the lanky, easygoing Hare says of the period with a laugh, talking in a downtown hotel on a range of topics for nearly an hour and a half. “I’m describing miserable years.”
“The Blue Touch Paper” takes its title from the British term for something used to light fireworks, whether literal or metaphorical. It is an obscure phrase, Hare smilingly apologized during a Saturday evening appearance at Politics and Prose Bookstore on Connecticut Avenue, but apt. The memoir starts with Hare’s childhood in southeast England’s socially rigid Bexhill-on-Sea, where his father was absent and his mother’s amateur theatrical experience included a brush with Julie Christie. The story blazes its way toward Hare’s eventual professional identity.
Hare writes himself as a driven student at Cambridge and as a nervous wreck in his first years with the Royal Court Theatre (where he was literary manager at age 21) and also at the National, where retching in the men’s room became routine. Pungent details include being thoroughly intimidated by actress Helen Mirren while directing his play “Teeth ’n’ Smiles”: She icily received him in her dressing room wholly nude.
The playwright leans left loudly, a lifelong champion of the working class and of underdogs, reliably furious at institutional greed and abuse of power. But Hare’s plays have never been solely about that, despite starting a ramshackle troupe called Portable Theatre with friends straight out of college and taking their cheap, rough, politically impassioned shows to the English streets.
“David Hare has never lifted a pen for dishonorable purposes, as far as I’m aware,” e-mails Nighy, who has worked with Hare for more than 30 years and recently starred with Carey Mulligan in his “Skylight” in London and on Broadway. (In June, the play earned a Tony Award as best revival.) “He has continued to present the world to us as it unfolds in a conscientious, elegant, original, compassionate and hilarious way.”
Last year, Hare adapted Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” the 2012 nonfiction National Book Award winner about the Mumbai slum Annawadi. Boo, a former Washington Post editor and reporter, says by e-mail, “He passes the global version of the Bechdel Test — which is to say, the reality test of 21st-century women’s lives — with flying colors.” Hare spent a week in Mumbai with director Rufus Norris, and Boo was struck “that he was willing, in the middle of directing some other consuming and starry project, to go to the slums and spend time listening to the people he was going to be representing.”
The writing never stops, not since the aggravating block as Hare grappled with the meaning of Thatcher’s election. He is adapting Deborah Lipstadt’s book “History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier” as a movie titled “Denial,” starring Rachel Weisz and Tom Wilkinson. His adaptations of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” “Ivanov” and “Platonov” are now running at England Chichester Festival Theatre and his drama “The Moderate Soprano,” about the founding of the countryside opera company at Glyndebourne, just debuted in London.
The play is “an opportunity for David to ask difficult questions about art and Englishness and entitlement,” director Jeremy Herrin says by e-mail. “David is whip smart, and he assumes his audience is, too.”
Nighy singles out Hare’s wit, and after decades of collaboration, Nighy both embodies and inspires it. The actor drilled home punchlines as the roguish entrepreneur in “Skylight,” and Hare tailored the wry but disenchanted MI5 agent in the “Worricker” films specifically for Nighy.
“He’s one of the people that I think should be given a pass when it comes to death,” Nighy says. “There would be no one to replace him. I think he should be given a special dispensation, as I would wish for Bob Dylan and Charlie Watts.”
Hare has had some delectable skirmishes: His tart reply to a negative review by New York Times critic Frank Rich earned a legendary headline in Variety: “Ruffled Hare Airs Rich Bitch.” His memoir makes it clear that taking his swings is part of his makeup, but also a product of having to fight for attention while often writing on topics demanding serious attention.
“I’ve spent my whole life cooking spinach,” Hare says. “That’s what I do. You know: Chinese revolution. Aid to the Third World. Privatization of the railways. And I’ve persuaded audiences that these subjects are just as entertaining as My Mother Didn’t Love Me, or My Father Was an Alcoholic.”
The memoir features a letter from novelist Philip Roth: “You are not a nice boy David,” Roth wrote after seeing the 1985 Hare-Howard Brenton play “Pravda,” with a character based on Rupert Murdoch (featuring Anthony Hopkins as Lambert Le Roux). Roth encouraged Hare to “stick to the wicked,” and that wicked bent comes out as Hare delightedly describes the current Broadway smash musical “Hamilton.” He makes a needling comparison between America and England via “Wolf Hall,” the popular novels, TV series and stage shows about Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell — arguably England’s foundation myth.
“But it’s not a liberating myth, like yours is,” Hare snickers. “Yours is a wonderful, refreshing myth. Our myth is about dark deeds and unpleasant doings.”
His thoughts are scalding about the financial industry, the subject of his verbatim play (quoting directly from interviews) “The Power of Yes: A Dramatist Seeks to Understand the Financial Crisis,” written at the behest of the National and staged as the ashes of the collapse still smoldered in 2009. “Bankers,” he says with distaste. “At no point did they discuss the impact of what they had done on regular people’s lives. They were totally uninterested.”
Hare dislikes opinion writers but adores war correspondents, and during several cycles he wrote for London papers about British political campaigns.
“Oh, I love your [politicians],” he says, his voice rumbling with sinister glee. “Until four weeks ago, I’d never heard of this person called Ben Carson. To me, you’ve got a sort of fabulous zoo of strange people. To my amazement, George W. Bush turns out to have a stupider brother called Jeb. Watching him struggle with the English language has made George W. look like Einstein.”
Hare, who pronounces himself deeply happy in the wake of “Blue Touch Paper,” got no closer to Washington theater during his weekend here, and didn’t see anything on a D.C. stage.
“Did you see what an incredible day it was yesterday?” he says after a mild, sunny Sunday. “This city, looking absolutely stunning — you can go into the Smithsonian for an hour, or the National Gallery, or the Holocaust Museum — these incredible museums. I mean, it’s a very, very beautiful city, isn’t it? It’s a fabulous city to walk around.”
The Blue Touch Paper by David Hare. W.W. Norton & Company. 368 pages.