It’s remarkable how often a profound historical shift can depend on a knife-edge decision, one that could so easily – or so it seems – have gone the other way. Think of the few thousand disputed Florida ballot papers that saw George W Bush become US president in 2000, or Britain’s wafer-thin 2016 majority for Brexit. And back in 1979, one of those moments shook Britain, when James Callaghan’s Labour government was defeated in a parliamentary vote of no confidence by just one vote, opening the way for the general election that saw Margaret Thatcher elected Prime Minister, and changed the course of British politics for good.
It’s that moment that marks the climax of James Graham’s acclaimed play This House, first seen in London in 2012, and set to visit Edinburgh next week as part of a UK-wide tour; and although the events it describes took place before Graham’s birth in 1982, it’s not difficult to see how the shockwaves of that time reverberated through the childhood of a boy growing up in a former mining village near Mansfield.
“The miners’ strike of 1984-5 is not remembered history for me,” says Graham, during a pause in rehearsals for the West End transfer of his latest play Quiz. “I was just too young. But still, a permeation of it ran through my childhood. In that part of Nottinghamshire, it wasn’t a straight-down-the-line anti-Thatcher thing – ideologically it was very grey, very nuanced. And I think that affected the way I saw politics right from the start – always knowing that there were real people on both sides of an argument.”
In his final years at school, Graham suddenly found himself drawn to theatre and performing, and in 2000 he moved on to Hull University, where he took a degree in theatre studies, and created a show called Coal Not Dole, which came to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002.
“I never wanted to write straight agitprop, though,” says Graham. “In fact, I think I’m often consciously trying to play devil’s advocate, and to get into the minds of people who don’t share my own liberal-left politics. And often – for example with my 2017 play Ink, about Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Sun – I’m surprised at people’s appetite for that complexity.”
After Hull, Graham went to London, and began to develop his skills as a dramatic chronicler of British politics with plays like Bassett, about the Wiltshire town that became famous for honouring British soldiers killed in Afghanistan. It was when This House opened at the National in 2012, though – with part of the audience ranged on stage, on Commons-style green benches – that Graham began to be recognised as one of the UK’s leading playwrights, dramatising key moments in national life with an ambition that makes many current new plays look like miniatures by comparison.
“Oh, I think I’d be much more terrified to write a small, personal drama set in someone’s living-room,” says Graham. “The big state of the nation play feels more natural to me. This House was my first National Theatre commission, and I began collecting material for it in 2010, when we had just elected our first hung parliament since the 1970s. So I was particularly interested in what happens when a government has a knife-edge majority, and the vote of every individual MP suddenly begins to count. And I soon realised that the play had to be set in and around the Whips’ offices, where all those individual dramas were played out.
“It is a political play, of course. But what makes it attractive as drama is that it’s also packed with amazing human stories – the sick and dying MP’s who were brought into the Commons to vote, or Helene Hayman bringing in her newborn baby and becoming the first MP ever to breast-feed in parliament. Then there were all the desperate efforts to strike deals – with the SNP, the Northern Ireland MP’s – to get legislation through.”
Graham says that he loves the geographical and class range of voices involved in the story, and is concerned that that sound has largely disappeared from today’s professionalised House of Commons; and for the Scottish actress Louise Ludgate, who plays a range of female characters, that variety of voices presents both a challenge and a thrill. “I’m doing received pronunciation, Welsh, Geordie, everything but Scottish,” says Ludgate, “and the whole story certainly makes you think about what it must have been like for women in parliament in those days, when it was so male dominated – we have 15 men in the touring company, and just three women.
“It’s also been interesting, on tour, to notice the differences in audience response. In Leeds, for instance, some found it hard to applaud at the end, because the play finishes with the voice of Margaret Thatcher ringing out, after her election in 1979. So what kind of response are we looking for, as a company? Well I think we’d want people to feel enlivened by the play – to see that politics is about people and relationships as well as parties, and that they can get involved, maybe even make a difference.”
And Graham shares that hope. “I think it’s something to do with ownership,” he says, “with encouraging people to feel that these systems belong to them, and not just to professional politicians. And that involves a more empathetic way of writing about the people who go into politics; that whatever compromises they make, these are human beings. After all, that’s what Shakespeare did: write powerful human dramas set against a backdrop of huge national events. So I’m shining a light into the way power works, opening up that world; and the effect of that should be liberating and galvanising – as well as entertaining, of course.”
This House is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, from 27-31 March.