It’s a dark, rain-soaked night in the Borders, as we snake along ever-narrower winding lanes to our destination, an elegant house deep in the countryside. David Greig’s 2012 play Letter Of Last Resort in set in the Prime Minister’s study in Downing Street, in the heart of London; but for this mystery-tour version staged by Richard Baron for the Hawick-based Firebrand Company, it might have been wise to switch the location to Chequers, the better to match the atmosphere of an elite country-house architecture and culture that once spread across the whole of Britain, even into its furthest corners.
Letter Of Last Resort ***
Heart of Hawick
As we arrive, we’re offered a glass of wine, and – with many brisk and convincing security instructions – escorted into the “cabinet room”, where the PM is sitting at a vast table, trying to write. She is female, small, elegant in dark navy; and when an aide called John arrives, it soon becomes clear that this is her first day in office, after a bruising general election.
John informs her that her last duty of the day must be to write the “letter of last resort”, the letter of instruction to be locked in the inner safes of Britain’s four Trident nuclear submarines, to be opened only in the event of the commander being convinced that the government of Britain has been destroyed in a catastrophic attack.
Essentially, she must say whether they should retaliate, or not; and what follows, as we move from cabinet room to drawing room, is a famously brilliant 40-minute exploration of the whole idea of deterrence theory, its madness, its mystery, its strange rationale.
Letter Of Last Resort is not a play to bring comfort either to gung-ho fans of the nuclear deterrent, or to convinced nuclear disarmers; it contains some brilliant writing on both sides of the question.
And if actors Ellie Zeegen and Ali Watt sometimes struggle slightly with the sheer density of the argument – and, rather more with the eerie solitude of a setting that seems deserted, apart from the unacknowledged audience ranged around the walls – they still capture the essence of one of David Greig’s most vivid and thoughtful short dramas at a moment when the ties that bind our nation together, across its network of handsome Georgian drawing rooms, seem to be weakening by the hour, and when the security structure within which it has sat for the last 70 years suddenly seems vulnerable, unstable, and almost out of time.