Fiona Ramsay and Graham Hopkins are a racy duo. Phenomenal. Hitting 90 miles an hour around the turns in their repartee. The comebacks and self deprecations fast and furious, going off at tangents and on a camber in transparent bids to avoid the crash of self realisation. Him especially, with his conservative, Etonian terror of the inward gaze. She, ignoring his humoured attempts at evasion, seeing them fully for what they are: a means of retaining the armour, the blindness to the herd of elephants in the room; “a savannah” of them. She, armourless and in her nightdress, a far more sympathetic figure as she drills him for the cynicism of his repressive right wing politics.
He’s a Parliamentarian, you see, and a Tory at that. A conservative in court during the reign of Maggie Thatcher (It’s 1988). She, a housewife in the Cotswolds, who drinks too much gin. But they are married, and had a son. So there’s that.
After a week in which he has publicly supported a new bill outlawing the support of homosexuality, and in which she has discovered an unexplained absence, there is an axe to grind. What the sparks lead to, what paths of acknowledgement they light, are quite unexpected.
Ramsay and Hopkins as Diana and Robin are fascinating sparring partners, infusing each syllable with sarcastic wit from playwright Simon Wood’s pen. The timing between the two was faultless, ignoring the comedy in the lines despite the audience’s sometimes inappropriate laughter.
From our sightline in the Baxter’s Golden Arrow Studio, it was Ramsay we watched, facing us and curled in her chair like a cat, eviscerating his hypocrisy, his Thatcherite inability to recognise frailty, even his own. The unyielding embrace of harsh policy. He admits to his party’s psychopathic nature in one of so many scintillating verbal bouts – of which the entire play is composed – almost too quick to catch – the import registers as they take an obtuse angle into the next one – in which she asks what you call a person who has no recognition of other people’s feelings, to which he replies: “a free market capitalist” before laughing mirthlessly at his own joke.
It is later, after the first truly emotional outburst as Diana’s sniping at his principles finds their mark once too often, and for which as a Brit he is immediately apologetic, that our eyes begin to rest on Hopkins. At the end, he is quite the equal of Ramsay, who seems as at ease on the stage as she might be driving her own car along a quiet country road, and we realised, with no surprise, that his character too, had been fully inhabited since the first line.
It would be interesting to gain the perspective of those who were on the other side of the Golden Arrow Studio’s half-round, whether Ramsay, side-on, commanded as much of their attention, or whether it is in the DNA of the play.
Either way, it is the pair’s fine-grained skill, together with the intelligence within the text – of which the example given is only the most obvious rather than the best – that makes Hansard what one may with conviction, call a damn fine play.
What it is really about, is the depths of our humanity despite being stifled within a system which expends all its might trying to negate feeling. It is about how much we actually share despite our differences. This universality, particularly edgy as the world teeters ever closer to a philosophy of us and them, gives this play, written in 2019 but set 30 years prior, an historical sweep. As such it acts as a reminder and a warning: whatever we think we may have gained, our fear is frightfully static; all politics rely on mobilising against an enemy and in doing so, what we may have gained in peace can all be taken away if we for a moment forget, and let ourselves fall prey to that fear of what is in actually a straw man.
It is only when Diana and Robin admit to failure, when they put down their armour and their weapons, that they are able to move beyond the confines of the stage they have limited themselves to.
Hansard is written by Simon Wood, directed by Robert Whitehead, starring Fiona Ramsay and Graham Hopkins. It plays at the Baxter Theatre’s Golden Arrow Studio at 8pm Monday to Saturday with a 2pm matinee on Saturday, until 11 February. Book through baxter.co.za.