First Nighter: James Graham's Politically Enthralling "This House" Gets the National Theatre HD Treatment

If you like theater and you like politics, you're going to jump at the chance to see theater about politics, Then get ready, politically-minded theatergoers or lovers of plain old-fashioned theatrics, because here's your chance. It's James Graham's This House, which ends its highly successful run at the National Theatre's Olivier tomorrow (Thursday, May 16) with a celebratory world-wide HD broadcast under the National Theatre Live auspices.
(See below for partial schedule of viewings.)
My unmitigated enthusiasm for the screenings comes from sitting in the Olivier this past February with a largely British audience and sharing the thrill of unexpected insights into the usually obscure, if not entirely hidden, Houses of Parliament workings. I admit I may not have the same patriotic interests that my fellow spectators brought with them but that may have even heightened my eventually satisfied curiosity.
What you need to know about This House is that playwright Graham (b. 1982) focuses his keen eye and ear on the virtually unfamiliar group of Tory and Labor Party whips during the 1970s. It's their job, perhaps needless to say, to get their respective MPs rounded up from wherever they are and whatever laudatory or salacious things they're up to for an impending vote, particularly any that might be potentially history-changing. Graham takes great glee in showing the determined, sometimes desperate and/or devious, methods to which they resort.
Because Graham is presenting theater-goers with an insider's view--he did much of his research with some of the very whips whom he puts on stage--he includes a generous number of inside terms. There's even a glossary in the Olivier program. But if some of the terms are self-explanatory and some sail over heads, the one truly necessary to know is "pairing." It's pertinent to a major plot development.
So here goes: "Pairing" simply means that if, say, a Tory MP is known to be unable to appear for a vote on a given day, a Labor member agrees by gentleman's--or gentlewoman's--agreement not to attend the session and therefore sit out the vote. And oh yes, it's good to know that MPs aren't identified by name in This House, but by the constituencies they represent, i. e., Margaret Thatcher, although rising to Prime Minister in 1979, is only mentioned as "Finchley."
The person to fill in any perspective big screen patron on the production's formative aspects is Graham himself. In a program note, he writes that his work "is inspired by real events, but it should not be understood as a biography or historical record. While trying to remain true to the events, this is, of course, a fictional account."
Graham threw more light on his remarkable commissioned piece in a telephone interview he gave me from his (south-of-Thames) Kennington flat, which, handy for him, is within walking distance of the National--where, incidentally, he owes his next NT commissioned piece by September.
Asked why he writes about politics (I saw another outstanding play of his, Tory Boyz, at the Soho Theatre a few years back). he said, "I wanted to write an exposé in a journalistic sense. I wanted to get behind the pretensions and barriers between government and the rest of us, to get beyond the political to the human beings, to humanize the situation. I knew I wanted to write about people. I find the ideas in this play quite moving--how to negotiate your principals with your party."
Mentioning he received his This House commission when he was 27 ("a kid who looks 12 years old"), he acknowledged he obviously hadn't been around during the period he chose to illuminate. He needed to research the subject matter. "I had to do a whole heap," he said. "It's not just history to me, it's history to the public. It's not in the front stage, it's the back stage. I had to start from scratch. It was going to meet people for coffee, drinks."
Of his main protagonists, he reports that "only two or three were living at the time. The main person is [Labor whip] Walter Harrison, a legend in the corridors of Westminster. He had letters, photographs, hand-written notes. I had no idea why no one else before me had wanted to write about it. It was such a drama."
Unforeseeable for Graham was how many of those whom depicted on stage have turned up in the audience and then supplied him with additional information he's been able to incorporate since his opening. One informed audience member told Graham he'd been too kind about her. She gave him a quote now in the dialog that, he said, "I never would have written." She relayed that when she was told bringing an ill colleague in for a vote could kill him, she replied, "Well, at least he'll die happy!"
Yes, it's that kind of shocking, totally rewarding play.
For your viewing pleasure:
_ NYU Skirball Center for the Arts (New York, NY) - May 23 at 7pm
_ Symphony Space (New York, NY) - June 2 at 2pm; June 16 at 7pm; and June 25 at 7pm
_ Cinemas 123 (New York, NY) - May 16 at 7pm and May 19 at 2pm
_ BAM (The Brooklyn Academy of Music - Brooklyn, NY) - June 1 at 10am
_ Kew Gardens Cinema (Queens, NY) - May 16 at 2pm and 7pm
_ James Bridges Theater, UCLA (Los Angeles, CA) - May 26 at 4pm
_ Downtown Independent (Los Angeles, CA) - May 16 at 11am; May 26 at 2:30pm; June 9 at 2:30pm; and June 23 at 2:30pm
_ Rialto Cinemas Elmwood (Berkeley, CA) - May 21 at 7pm; May 23 at 7pm; and June 13 at 7pm
_ Kabuki Cinemas (San Francisco, CA) - June 3 at 7:15pm and June 8 at 12:30pm
_ Shakespeare Theatre Company (Washington, DC) - June 24 at 7:30pm
_ SIFF Cinema (Seattle, WA) - June 15 at 1pm; June 17 at 7pm; June 22 at 1pm; and June 24 at 7pm
_ Coolidge Corner Theatre (Brookline, MA) - May 16 at 7pm
_ Josephine Louis Theatre, Northwestern University (Chicago, IL) - May 31 at 7pm
_ Phoenix Art Museum (Phoenix, AZ) - May 31 at 2pm; June 1 at 1pm; and June 2 at 2pm
_ Angelika Film Center & Café (Houston, TX) - May 30 at 7pm and June 1 at 2pm
_ Sundance Cinemas Houston (Houston, TX) - June 3 at 7:15pm and June 8 at 12:30pm