After success at Nottingham Playhouse, Tony’s Last Tape has transferred to south London’s new fringe theatre, the Bridgehouse in Penge SE20, for a three-week run in election month.
I imagine that Labour Party faithful and others of a particular political persuasion have more pressing matters on their mind just at the moment. But I do hope they – and as many others as possible – will see this one-man play, whether it be before or after Thursday.
Apart from the insights it provides into the late politician Tony Benn, the public firebrand politician and the private family man, Tony’s Last Tape is a stirring call to arms to all of us to reclaim a collective consciousness, to put duty and responsibility above self-interest, to value influence and change above affluence and status.
After Benn’s death in March 2014, director Giles Croft conceived the piece; theatrically, drawing very clear parallels with Samuel Beckett’s 1958 monologue Krapp’s Last Tape. Like Beckett’s fictional Krapp, Tony Benn was renowned for recording his diaries over many decades. (More coincidental than conscious: Benn, like Krapp, also had a fondness for bananas.)
However, whilst in Beckett, the actor playing Krapp (amongst those who’ve famously tackled the role have been Harold Pinter, Michael Gambon, John Hurt, Brian Dennehy, Corin Redgrave and Irishman Patrick Magee, for whom it was written) occupies his time onstage listening, to various tapes of his own voice, Tony’s Last Tape is more about Philip Bretherton’s live performance.
He does occasionally press play or rewind on one of the many recording devices on or around Rachael Jacks’ cluttered study set, but it’s his live delivery of Benn’s words and beliefs, in what is uncannily like Benn’s own distinctive voice, that’s so riveting.
Ironically, though inspired by Tony Benn’s diaries (all eight volumes of them), none of this copyrighted material is used in the play. Instead, playwright Andy Barrett has drawn on many other public domain sources and then creatively knitted them into this ruminative introspection in a way that he imagines Benn may have spoken to himself. Barrett’s Benn is near the end of his life, wondering whether it may be time to both withdraw from the fight and free himself of the burden of ceaseless documentation.
After the matinee this past Sunday, I caught up with Philip Bretherton to chat about art and politics, his own views on Tony Benn and the state of the 21st-century nation Benn has left behind. (See also today’s other blog on all things Tony Benn!)
Philip on Tony
We start with a big, basic question: what is his overall impression of the iconic politician that he plays in Tony’s Last Tape?
“I think it was Enoch Powell who said ‘all political careers end in failure’. And I suppose, in the end, Tony Benn failed. But the more now that we see of things like the shrinking of the state, the apathy of a young generation particularly when it comes to politics – so much of what he warned against is coming true, I think. It seems that the ‘Tory project’ is to cede power to corporations, who we don’t vote for. Democracy is, to a certain extent, under threat.”
Not just the Tories or the corporations, but most of all from us: “From a populace that thinks they [the politicians] are all the same. The public think politicians are all in it for themselves. A lot of that mistrust came about from the Daily Telegraph’s revelations about expenses claims. It meant that politicians as a whole lost respect, and they were all tarred with the same brush. That’s a great shame.
“The truth is, they’re not all the same at all. That’s a lazy way of thinking. All of the front men may be the same; there are a lot of suits at the front of politics. But the others are not all the same. If the House of Commons has Dennis Skinner, Michael Fabricant and Jacob Rees Mogg in it, it’s always going to be an eccentric and rather odd place. MPs are very different and plenty of them, like Tom Watson, do still campaign for things they believe in.”
So the “largely right-wing” press in the UK must also, according to Bretherton (and Benn), bear much of the responsibility for this reductionism of complex political issues. And particularly how left-wing positions and politicians are represented.
When I ask what his favourite Bennism from the play is, Philip doesn’t hesitate in quoting Benn’s observation on political reporting:
“It’s always a ‘lurch to the left’ but a ‘victory to the right’.”
The actor agrees with Benn that this is symptomatic of “the demonisation of the left”, which continues to shape public opinion ahead of the current General Election. “To the extent that we now believe it was Labour’s fault that there’s a debt crisis. Hang on, isn’t that because of Lehman Brothers and the fact that we had to bail out the banks?
“But it’s become such common currency now that Ed Miliband can go on that final debate programme with the public, and when he said ‘it’s not our fault’, the audience gasped in disbelief. Because they follow the right-wing press’ constant hammering that it’s Labour’s fault that we got into the mess that we’re in.”
In the face of such challenges, is there any hope? Famously, no matter how many setbacks over his long life in politics, Benn always remained hopeful. Maybe some of that optimism has rubbed off on Bretherton, not only in regards to possible results after Thursday’s voting but also in terms of the need for conviction in politics in the face of corporation-driven compromises:
“I do think there’s going to be a shake-up this time. New personalities will come through. Conviction politicians need to start setting out their stall again and saying, ‘we’ve got to get some control back’. Before we sign that trade agreement which would allow corporations to sue governments for restraint of trade, like they’ve tried to do in Australia.”
As for left-wing, love-them-or-loathe-them conviction politicians of a Labour past that Benn personified: “There’s only Dennis Skinner left” – who Bretherton describes as “a good Labour working-class man of the left, who’s stuck to his guns and never been tainted by any kind of scandal” – “and he’s 83.”
But there’s life in that old dog yet. Skinner, the son of a coalminer and himself a miner for 20 years before becoming a politician, has been MP for Bolsover in Derbyshire since 1970 and was expected to step down at this election. “But he’s standing again,” Bretherton notes, “because David Cameron said that he wished him a happy retirement and that was an instant call to arms.”
One can’t help but think that Benn would approve of his former colleague. But what, I wonder, would Benn have to say to the great British public this week? Again, Philip doesn’t hesitate in guessing what Benn’s message would be, and it’s a very simple one.
“Vote. That would be the message: vote. And wrest back some power, let your voice be heard.”
As I thank Philip for his time, and take my leave, I refer back to some of quote-notes scribbled during his performance, and in my mind’s ear, I hear again the rousing Bretherton-Benn voice as he talks of the seeds of real social change and where they are always, where they must always, be sown: ‘on the ground, in the streets, in the people’.
In addition to urging us to vote, I think Benn might also this week suggest that we remember the five questions we should always ask the powerful (above), and, especially should the result be another uneasy Coalition Government, he might go on to remind us that:
“There is no final victory. There is no final defeat. There is just the same battle. To be fought over and over again. So toughen up. Bloody toughen up!”