Playwright jonathan maitland on the challenges of dramatizing the fastest moving story of our time.
When writing a play about real events and real people – the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri for example – it’s helpful if the events are historic. In the case of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, the events in question took place some 200 years before he picked up his pen, which was invaluable for two reasons: a) Neither Wolfgang Amadeus nor Antonio could sue and b) Shaffer was able to play fast and loose with the facts, such as they were known, and nobody gave a damn. The result? A compelling tale of power, jealousy and warped egos. Which brings me nicely to Brexit.
My play The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson, which recently completed its run at London’s Park Theatre and is soon to embark on a national tour, afforded me no such luxury.
Indeed it was the ultimate dramatic moving target: The story was changing so quickly, and so dramatically, that lines had to be rewritten weekly, and sometimes nightly.
The story, you’ll have guessed, was about the genesis of our (probably imminent) departure from the EU. Act one depicts the ‘Dinner Party That Changed History’ – the meal in February 2016 at the Islington home of Boris Johnson and his then-wife Marina Wheeler attended by Michael Gove, Sarah Vine and Evgeny Lebedev (bizarrely, Liz Hurley was invited but didn’t show) at which he was finally persuaded to join the Leave campaign. Act two is set in 2030, when the consequences of Brexit have become apparent and Johnson is in the political wilderness. (The two events are linked.)
A risky venture then. David Hare calls it “chasing the dustcart”: That is, trying to tell a story of huge importance before the final outcome is known. Hence the famous quote attributed to Zhou Enlai about the outcome of the French Revolution. (“It is too early to tell.”) But there are advantages to chasing dustcarts. For a start, it’s exciting: You don’t know where you might end up. Also, if you’re lucky, something valuable might fall off the back.
In this case, the thing of value that fell into our lap was Theresa May’s resignation and Johnson’s announcement that he was running to replace her. That happened just days after opening night. It turbo-charged the piece. Scene after scene started taking off like a rocket.
For example, a post-dinner party sequence when Johnson, by now the worse for wear, argues with the ghosts of Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and Tony Blair, in his head, over which side to join.
It’s not ideology driving him, you’ll be surprised to hear. Which road leads to Number Ten? “I’ve written two articles for the Telegraph,” he tells the former PMs. “One, a passionately argued, genuinely heartfelt piece, saying we should definitely stay in the EU. The other, a passionately argued, genuinely heartfelt piece, saying completely the opposite.”
The laughs became increasingly long and loud as the run progressed, if a little mordant. In one scene in 2030 he has a spectacular technology-fuelled argument with his latest girlfriend, who is much younger than him. During the run, news broke of Johnson’s angry exchanges with his much younger girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, about a computer. Events off stage were so closely echoing what was happening on it that we weren’t sure if life was imitating art or the other way round.
That uncanny timeliness, plus excellent word of mouth, saw the play break box office records at the Park: 103% of the available seats were sold. (The extra 3% were standing room only.) But it wasn’t an entirely positive experience.
When you write a play about a subject as viscerally divisive as this you risk flak from reviewers who think Brexit is no laughing matter. Happily though, it got zingers from the Times and the Daily Mail (both four stars) and – most unexpectedly – this fine organ, where Martin McQuillan awarded it five stars, calling it “a remarkable piece of theatre”. You can still read the review online.
Most importantly though, the audience loved it (including one R. Johnson, who sent me an appreciative text complementing Will Barton’s brilliant portrayal of her brother). Hence the forthcoming tour, which starts in January, eight days before we are due to exit the EU.
That tour will present similar creative writing challenges. In theory I shouldn’t even start the new draft until the morning of December 13. But, like Boris Johnson on that fateful night, I have visualised both possibilities and penned two pieces accordingly.
One version assumes he’s still in charge, the other that he’s been humiliated. My money however (literally: £100 at 11-10) is on the former outcome, for one simple reason: The opposition to the Tories is divided.
Last time round Labour got 40%. This time, Labour’s share is being eaten into by the Lib Dems and, in places, the Brexit Party. Great Grimsby is instructive. In 2017 Labour had a majority of nearly 5,000 and a share of 49%. But a recent poll showed the Tories on 44% and Labour on 31%. Their vote had been cannibalised by the Brexit Party (17% ) and the rest (Sorry, Jo) on 8%.
Similar polls in other Brexit-voting constituencies suggest even a late Corbyn surge won’t make much difference. But who knows?
One thing I won’t be rewriting is the 10-years-hence scenario. Having consulted experts like Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London, and read books like Ian Dunt’s Brexit: What The Hell Happens Next?, I’m sticking to my original, less-than-optimistic predictions.
Johnson will still trumpet, in a televised interview on the BBC Amazon News Channel, that, in 2030: “The north-south divide is, at last, a thing of the past. Let us at least give thanks for that!” And his interviewer will still point out that the only reason for that is “not that the north’s done so well, but that the south’s done so badly. 50,000 jobs lost in the City of London alone in the last decade. The air’s been seeping out of the balloon since the day we left.”
I hope I’m wrong. But I just can’t see how we’re going to avoid the slow-motion car crash. Plays like mine won’t make the slightest bit of difference of course.
Since when did a piece of theatre change anything? The only value, perhaps, is in the escapism. If you laugh, you won’t hear the sound of the air seeping out.
– The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson schedule: Festival Theatre, Malvern, January 22-25; Nuffield Southampton Theatres, February 3-8; Theatre Royal Windsor, February 10-15; Northern Stage, Newcastle, February 18-22; Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, February 24-29; The Lowry, Salford, March 2-7; Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, March 9-14