Gordon Brown goes walkabout at the Edinburgh Fringe
7th August 2013
The Confessions of Gordon Brown, British theatre’s first proper examination of the former PM, explores the man’s flaws – and that’s no bad thing, writer Kevin Toolis explains. First published in the Daily Telegraph, Aug 07, 2013.
One of the most shameful omissions in our booming new writing culture during the New Labour years was any noteworthy theatrical examination of Gordon Brown. Where left-leaning playwrights were happy to grapple with government foreign policy, the domestic agenda was given a curiously wide berth. Blair was the bogeyman, Brown got off Scot-free. His brooding presence has latterly stalked Peter Morgan’s The Audience, although it was an earlier TV drama, The Deal, also by Morgan, that memorably brought home the long-rumbling rift at the heart of “the project”.
That power-struggle resulted in Brown collecting the keys to Number 10 in 2007 only to let them slip from his fingers three years on after his unhappy premiership came to a decisive end. For the respected Scottish journalist, screen-writer and film-maker Kevin Toolis, it wasn’t enough to let the obituaries for his reign be usurped by the birth of the Coalition. When his suggestion to those he knew in television that Brown warranted an in-depth look met with the rebuff that he was already yesterday’s man, he took it upon himself to do some spade-work, unearth the truth about his tenure and write his first play.
The result, a monologue called The Confessions of Gordon Brown – premiering at the Pleasance, just streets from where Toolis, 48, grew up – has already ruffled Labour Party feathers without even being seen. It has been booked in for a short spell in Brighton during the party conference in September but the playwright found himself unable to promote the show in the conference magazine. The advertising spaces offered him mysteriously became more financially restrictive until, as he says, “the only space left was one of the full pages – the sort of EDF nuclear power slot – at over £6000. I doubt that even if we had pursued that option that we would have been allowed to buy space in their mag. It clearly was an act of censorship that is both childish and pathetic.”
What might the party be afraid of? A serious-minded and straight-forward individual, Toolis has spoken to a number of key Brownite insiders – Douglas Alexander, Ed Balls and Damian McBride among them, as well as Spencer Livermore, former Director of Strategy at Number 10, and Deborah Mattinson, Brown’s former pollster. Brown is being embodied by the actor Ian Grieve – who has had audiences during the early run of the show unnerved and amused by his uncanny impersonation, which extends to forced handshakes with the front row. And yet for all its entertainment value the show isn’t designed to be a hatchet-job, Toolis insists.
“I’ve written in the past about Ireland and the IRA. My book Rebel Hearts was criticised for being too pro-Provisional but a lot of people in Sinn Fein hated me for it. You can’t be partisan. I’m not carrying a flag for Gordon Brown, either as the great lost king or the demon king – some of the hostility towards him I find incomprehensible. I didn’t want to look at the surface politics. I wasn’t doing this to feed the lobby machine. It’s not a dramatic reconstruction – it’s a dramatic reinterpretation. The play is a study in power. It reveals the flaws and strengths of an important Scottish labour leader. It would be naïve to think the reaction to this would be thoroughly benign but I think it raises issues that are profoundly important.”
He sees nothing far-fetched about seeing Brown in quasi-Shakespearean terms. “He had a touch of Richard II, the malevolence of Macbeth, the madness of King Lear and the indecisiveness of Hamlet, all mixed together. Unlike Blair he had a deeper moral hinterland – he’s more complicated more driven and more flawed and therefore inherently more dramatic.”
“The picture that emerged from my talking to all these people,” he continues, “was that all roads led to Gordon. What you had was a seething court of conditional alliances. Each felt vulnerable, unable to express their opinion candidly without fear of attack from within the circle.” He maintains that all leaders, to a greater or lesser extent, operate in this fashion. “We talk about democracy but every prime minister has some model of a medieval court. Who has access? Who is the gate-keeper? And all leaders present themselves as the natural order of things – this has been going on since Babylonian times. Part of the play is about questioning our passive role as the led – we always need some sort of demigod to rule over us.”
Does he know if Labour’s fallen idol, the man who once made Whitehall tremble at his commands, plans to pop in and see it? “I think it’s unlikely he will come but he would be welcomed if he did.” He wouldn’t be too hard to spot. And, who knows, by gamely taking it on the chin, he might finally secure some of that popularity that eluded him for so long.