Hansard is, theoretically, a comedy. It is a comedy because it makes you laugh.
One of my best friends has remarked to me in the past that the best comedy says things about the world. She’s right, too, and this is the best comedy. This is comedy that softens you up with laugh after laugh before sticking in the knife and giving it a damn good twist.
There are many spoilers ahead. There is also mention of suicide.
Hansard is a one-act duologue: a heterosexual couple with 30 years of marital bliss behind them argue. Robin is a Conservative politician; his wife – formerly his mistress – Diana is a lefty of the middle-class bent.
In a week in which I found out there are grown-ups who’ve never known minesweeper I am loathe to further date myself, but when I was a young man – knee-high to a grasshopper – MacDonalds restaurants had these free-standing charity things. They had the form of a sloped, inverted cone and were covered in a plastic dome so you could see inside. What you’d do is line up a 2p coin in a slot and then let it go and it would shoot off, circling round and round the cone. In later life I discovered that’s also the model for how light acts around a massive gravity well, like a black hole, and I wonder how many of those scientists started off in life like me, watching their 2p coins run round and round, round and round, and moving faster as they moved down the gradient until finally they spun frantically, flashing, strobing at the very edge of oblivion – before dropping with a soft plink into the pile below.
There is, I hope, a certain generation of reader who is nodding sagely – and indeed another who is staring bemused at the words on this page. It’s alright. I’m old now. I accept it.
The reason I bring this up is because this is what Hansard feels like. There is, even from the beginning, a sense of impending doom. Diana is itching for a fight about something: there is something nibbling away at her inside. Robin too, for all his jolly Tory self-deprecation, seems to have a sense of where this is going. We spiral around and around something, and about halfway through I – and perhaps the rest of the audience – understands what it is.
The loops get tighter. The pain is touched on quicker and quicker: where at first it was grazed before the two spun off again and made pointed comments about the other’s terrible politics or drinking habits it is now pressed on, leaned on. It gets tighter and tighter as we move towards the core of the thing.
In 1988, two years before I was born, Section 28 was added to the Local Government Act. Section 28 stated that local authorities:
“shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
Section 28 was repealed in England in 2003, when I was 13 years old.
Teaching children that being gay is okay has been legal in England for 16 years.
There are people today who, I suspect, don’t remember lovely whizzy charity boxes in MacDonalds or that Minesweeper was one of four games you could play on a computer or that when you were at school your teachers couldn’t tell you that it was okay to feel the way you felt about people with the same gender as you.
This play is set the day after the amendment is passed.
The play sets the couple up wonderfully. They are at loggerheads, but have the sort of easy familiarity that only comes with knowing someone for thirty years. They banter effortlessly; thrust, parry, riposte without a blow landing. It is only when Diana reaches for a Cinefilm that we get a rise out of Robin, who until this point has been cheerfully owning up to his terrible nature as a Tory bogeyman. There is something here, something very painful, and Diana keeps pressing on the wound. She runs at the pain, self-flagellating – but why? Robin meanwhile is trying desperately to shut down the process; to hold back, to play out his emotions privately.
And the play unfolds and we discover the secret pain, the agony that Diana is running towards and Robin is trying to hold back from. Except they’re not the same pains. They’re secrets that each has held back from the other.
They had a son, you see. They had a son, Tom, who was – in the modern parlance – queer. And they both knew it. And we feel like we know where this is going as we zoom in on the pain, as Diana reads from Tom’s diary and we discover that Robin took him to a female sex worker in a – let us be generous – misguided attempt to ‘steer him to make the right choice’.
There was a time, my friends, when our parents thought being queer was a lifestyle choice. And in that context you can understand Robin’s actions. You can understand why a father who believes this to be a choice would want to encourage his son to make a different choice in the same way he’d encourage him to try out accountancy in case being a poet didn’t work out.
In the audience, we know this story. The progressive mother is here to unveil the truth: has been pushed too far by her husband’s callousness towards their son coupled with his support for this hideous amendment.
But Tom is obvious by his absence. We think we know what happened to Tom. Nobody’s talking about it, but we know. The penny drops.
According to a 2018 report 1 in every 8 LGBT people aged between 18 and 24 have tried to take their own lives.
Diana is pure rage by this point. We understand – we think we understand – why she’s so angry. Because, frankly, faced with this rank hypocrisy we’re all pretty angry too.
And then she very suddenly folds up and it turns out the person she’s so angry, so disgusted by, is herself. Because Tom showed himself to her – his real self, in a silk dress with red lips and rouged cheeks and the first hairs on his chest peeking out – and she was sick. She ran to the bathroom, and she threw up, and when she’d finished Tom was gone. He was gone, and his body came back on the tide.
For all of her progressive ideals, when the time came, something buried deep in her psyche wriggled out and rejected the idea. She’s so angry at herself, so sad and broken-hearted, that we almost can’t bear it.
At the beginning of the play, Diana makes sport of the terrible calamity of the clean air in the Cotswolds. It’s frustrating, she says, because it means one keeps on living. Couldn’t her husband pull some strings and get an A-road through? Really get some pollution going so she can finally get on with kicking the bucket. They joke about how much she drinks; what a liver she has.
It’s funny at the time. Now we realise it’s pure self-destruction.
Nobody’s laughing now.
This play is an astonishing piece of work. Please go and see it if you can.