Plenty by David Hare

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BBC Radio 4, 14 June 2008

First produced at the National Theatre in 1978, Plenty is an epic set in wartime France and post-1945 England, which uses the experiences of the central character Susan (Miranda Richardson) to comment on various aspects of British society – its bravery during wartime, its obsession with the idea of Empire, and an apparently unshakeable discrimination against female self-expression. When I saw the first production I viewed it as a powerful indictment by an avowedly socialist dramatist, staged at a time when Prime Minister Callaghan’s Labour government seemed incapable of implementing policies without trade union support. A year after Plenty appeared, there came the so-called ‘winter of discontent,’ when it seemed as if the entire public sector had been paralysed by strikes.

Three decades later Plenty now seems like a brutal analysis of why Britain failed to capitalize on the wartime spirit and keep up with changing times. Susan spends much of the war in occupied France working with the Resistance; it’s a dangerous life, but incredibly fulfilling, with each new experience extending her capabilities. Although her relationships with men were brief, they were pleasurable, providing an emotional immediacy that simply could not be found elsewhere.  When she returns to Britain, however, she finds that the country has no use for her; she is expected to conform to the prevailing social roles of wife and mother, while leaving men to resume the important work of governing the nation. Unwilling to observe such dictates, Susan pursues an unsatisfactory life of one-night stands and desperate yearnings for self-determination that find their expression in a desire to have a child out of wedlock. Eventually she forges a loveless marriage with Brock (Ben Miles), a failed diplomat, who accuses her of being irresponsible, self-interested and unwilling to face up to life. Susan’s plight was admirably communicated by Richardson, whose voice veered between extremes of depression and ecstasy as she vainly tried to make something of her life.

This revival of Plenty, directed by John Dove, also made a harsh criticism of Britishness, especially that rather archaic form characteristic of the Foreign Office. Geoffrey Palmer was cast as the ambassador Darwin – as with many parts he has played over the years, Palmer invested the role with a certain quiet authority. Trust in me, he seemed to say, and all will be well. The problem was that nothing went well; having spent all of his working life in the plush confines of the British Embassy, Darwin had little or no grasp of the political realities surrounding him. He reduced all problems to a series of strategies designed to evade rather than confront any problems. Darwin’s failings are cruelly exposed in a scene taking place during the Suez Crisis of 1956, when it emerges that the Foreign Office have been by-passed altogether as Prime Minister Anthony Eden plays an elaborate chess game with the French and the Israelis in a futile attempt to secure control of the canal. For all Darwin’s diplomatic skills, he and his kind are basically irrelevant to the post-1945 world.

Hare also suggests that the ‘game’ of diplomacy frustrates individual talent and promotes mediocrity. In a pivotal scene towards the end Susan visits Sir Andrew (Angus Wright), a senior mandarin at the Foreign Office, to ask why her husband has not received the kind of preferment he deserves in the race for foreign postings. Sir Andrew replies that Brock lacks judgement – which has little or nothing to do with intelligence, but rather manifests itself in an inability to keep quiet at appropriate moments. This is what being a diplomat involves – even if it means that no one actually dares to say anything out of turn. Unless Brock plays the game, his career is stymied. Hare suggests that this ideology led to Britain’s decline; while their politicians dithered, their former rivals (such as Germany) set about the task of reconstruction, and eventually surpassed Britain in terms of industrial output.

Dove’s revival emphasized the inherent irony in the play’s title – although the Second World War promised plenty, women like Susan are left with nothing, reduced to seedy little affairs in seafront hotels in a futile attempt to recover the wartime spirit. In 2008 it seems that Plenty has an elegiac quality, as it tries to show exactly what went wrong with Britain all those years ago. At the end the only emotion I felt was one of regret – that such an obviously talented woman had been wasted. It would be nice to say that, were Susan alive today, that she might be given more opportunities to develop herself. But I am very doubtful that this is true.