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The Permanent Way
by Brian Clover

My right leg was still on fire. I didn't think anything of it: I just patted it out with my hands.
--- A victim of the Southall train crash
The Permanent Way
Bella Merlin & Kika Markam as members of the Permanent Way gang (Photo: John Haynes)
David Hare's new play is a bold change of style. For years he has written worthy, wordy, slightly stodgy, high-minded dissections of British political life, stooping from time to time to adapt the crowd-pleasing The Blue Room and the movie-script for The Hours.

The Permanent Way is different: it is a brave single-handed attempt to revive the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd that flowered brightly but briefly in the 1950's. And it is a very liberating departure: Hare can present the extremes of violent death, rape, horror, greed, theft and deceit that you might find in a Ted Hughes version of Ovid.

The Permanent Way invents a bizarre parallel universe where nothing works as it should. The inhabitants are grumblingly accepting of this incompetence until one day an angel of death appears and sweeps across the land. Now ordinary people are dying: suddenly, randomly, hideously and unnecessarily. Others escape death but are left disfigured and despairing. Without warning these innocents are plunged from the mundane into the monstrous.

Moreover the deaths are mysterious: no one can agree on the cause. No one knows what to do. The victims are too demoralised, the survivors are confused, the bereaved are numb. The best and brightest in the land, or so they think they are, are too distracted by worldly pursuits and pleasures to focus on what is happening to their less fortunate fellows. The government affects a polite interest but does nothing. (Although, in a masterstroke of insensitivity, it does deploy a genial shambles of a minister to comfort the afflicted. This, of course, only makes things worse.)

If the individual tragedies were not so painful this could be a surreal farce by Dario Fo, but then the plot darkens. The government, it seems, is not only helpless against this horror, but actually obstructs attempts to fight it. Why else obscure the truth and remove the investigating police officer? Suspicions grow and finally - can it be true? - was this monster was created by the government itself?

Like Sophocles' Oedipus facing the truth of his own guilt, Hare's nation must finally confront the reality it has conspired so long to deny: this monster is not only man-made, but was made despite the warnings of those seers who prophesied exactly what would come to pass. In their greed and blindness and apathy, the people have wasted their heritage to create that which is destroying them. What can they do now? Can anyone be truly innocence in such a land? Hare poses the question, but leaves us to answer it.

This doesn't sound much like a David Hare play, does it? And there's a good reason for that: the events are essentially true and they happened in Britain over the last ten years, not in some tormented fantasy world. Hare's theme is the privatisation of the British public railway system and what happened after. If this sounds unpromising material, the results are anything but. This is genuine drama: a political decision was taken. Fortunes were made. Contracts were let. And thenů the accidents begin.

With a bare stage and a cast of nine, Hare and director Max Stafford-Clark give us a railway station, a crowded carriage, a train crash, a tribunal, and more importantly, a series of intimate conversations with those involved. Hare seems to have used transcriptions of actual interviews with those involved, name-checking himself on occasions, and edited them into a chronicle of horror.

While you might dismiss this technique as a sophisticated piece of editing, it is impossible not to be moved by the simple eloquence of the victims. The details are searing. We are told what it is like to lose an adult child - a greater loss, according to a solicitor, than a young one. A grieving husband quietly tells his wife he is sorry, he has to leave her: and she knows this means he will take his own life. A mother learns, when someone comes for his hairbrush, that her son's body is burned beyond recognition. A widow ruefully acknowledges the one benefit of losing "My companion, my lover" of 48 years: "more closet space". A mother sees the hand of Fate: "They held the train for him!" Survivors calmly describe the effects of derailment: "When I saw Austin flying past I thought, you don't want to collide with him. He was a big chap. His wife is built like a sparrow." A woman extinguishes the fire that is her own body: "I had trained myself to observe and record for my work. Then I was unconscious for three months". "When you go through a window your shoes come off."

And then there are those responsible for running the system. Dodging, weaving, ducking and, in some cases, still rather pleased with themselves. The politician has his Chinese feast ruined. The manager prudently leaves his rail years off his CV. In a chilling echo of Eichmann, the civil servant explains that his job is to do his task well, not to question the task itself. The banker who saw it as a technical challenge of share pricing. The train company owner shrugs and admits to a poor service but says it hasn't affected his brand. No one admits fault. No one is to blame.

This is an absorbing and fascinating two hours, even if you have no interest in politics or trains. Hare avoids polemic, letting these people speak for themselves. Although the piece starts slowly and hesitantly, focussing on a carriage-full of flip and irritating commuters, it soon picks up as the testimonies are voiced. The performances and stage craft, as you would expect from Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint company, are stunning. It would be unfair to single out any one of the cast. They perform multiple roles and make it look easy. This is as good as acting gets. But video designer William Dudley deserves special credit for two of the evening's most striking effects - one as charming as the other is horrifying.

Over the last few years seemingly dry official investigations have produced political drama that is more powerful than many plays. Journalist Richard Norton-Taylor has pioneered the adaptation of these inquiries for the stage and his treatments of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence and the selling of arms to Iraq have breathed life back into political drama. Hare himself has followed the same route to reality with his Via Dolorosa and now adds another effective example. Next up in Britain is the Hutton report into government spinning and the war against Iraq. Who will get it on stage first?

The Permanent Way
Written by David Hare
Directed by Max Stafford-Clark

Starring: Kika Markham
With: Ian Redford, Nigel Cooke, Bella Merlin, Souad Fares, Lloyd Hutchinson, Matthew Dunster, Flaminia Cinque, Sam Graham,
Designer: William Dudley
Lighting Design: Johanna Town
Sound Designer: Paul Arditti
Running time: One hour forty minutes without an interval
A co-production between the National Theatre and Out of Joint
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 30th March 2004
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 14th January October 2004 Performance at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube Station: Waterloo)
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