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The Letter of Last Resort

by on 17 June 2021

Mutually Assured Distraction

The Letter of Last Resort

by David Greig

The Questors, in association with PlayGC Theatre Company, at the Judy Dench Playhouse, Ealing until 19th June

Review by Andrew Lawston

The hour is late.  As voiceover clips narrate a series of election results, a woman sits at her desk in an ornate office, struggling to write a letter.  Discarded drafts circle the waste paper basket, and her shoes have also been cast aside.  Theatre has finally returned to The Questors Theatre’s Judi Dench Playhouse, and the sense of relief and excitement in the auditorium is so palpable that we would probably all happily watch this exasperated letter writer work at her missive in silence for the full fifty minutes of David Greig’s play The Letter of Last Resort, from Playgc Theatre Company.

Fortunately, she is swiftly interrupted by a man with the smooth bearing and manilla envelopes of a Whitehall mandarin, who introduces himself to the Prime Minister as John, from “Arrangements”.  He has come, he reveals after a little small talk, to ask her to attend to a pressing matter.  The writing of the eponymous letter of last resort, the handwritten sealed letters written by all Prime Ministers on their first day in office, containing instructions for the commanders of Trident submarines in the event of an incapacitating nuclear attack on the United Kingdom.

The Prime Minister is attempting to write a letter of condolence to the mother of a young soldier killed in action, she reveals.  She refuses to use a template, keen to do things differently.  John’s pressing matter will have to wait.

Rebuffed, John says, “I think I’ll… hover.”  And he does, as their conversation plays out.  Robert Gordon Clark gives a wonderfully restrained performance as John, moving as little as possible, and the inflections in his voice doing all the work as he politely agrees with the Prime Minister, even as he steers the conversation towards its inevitable conclusion.  His performance gives Lisa Day, as the unnamed Prime Minister, a perfect foil to play against  as she moves from her initial appearance as an inexperienced but confident leader, into uncertain realms of ethics, and philosophy.

These two assured performances anchor the audience in the play’s central question: the country has been destroyed by nuclear attack.  Do you retaliate with a similar attack, killing millions of innocent people, or not?

In a key moment, as the gravity of the scenario dawns on her, the Prime Minister quietly switches from drinking glasses of water, to the brandy decanter.  As the conversation becomes more intense, John briefly allows himself to become a little more expressive.  As Prime Minister and John “role play” the scenario in which the UK has been the victim of a nuclear attack, Robert Gordon Clark manages to convey the idea that John secretly rather enjoys the exercise, despite his initial scepticism.  An abstract discussion about the practicalities and ethics of nuclear warfare becomes a gripping drama between two solid characters, whose relationship and power balance shifts constantly.

Director John Davey has paced this taut play perfectly; there are moments where the two characters are almost completing each other’s sentences with the urgency of the situation, while in other places there are significant pauses as implications weigh upon the characters, and of course the audience.

Amid the ethical debate, however, there are lighter moments.  When the Prime Minister confesses to having been on anti-nuclear protests with a boyfriend in her youth, John’s surprisingly forceful (and pure Civil Service) reaction, “Has he been vetted?” provided a much needed laugh as the conversation became ever murkier.

Theatregoers of a certain age may well recall a similar dramatised conversation about the nuclear deterrent from Yes, Prime Minister.  And while John stops short of Sir Humphrey’s timeless declaration that the true goal of the UK’s programme is to deter not the Russians, but the French, in a lighter moment the two characters do acknowledge their forerunner.  Around this point of relaxation, as the Prime Minister suggests they are like “two characters in a drama”, the audience is reminded strongly of the play’s artifice, which evokes Bertolt Brecht’s techniques of distantiation.  It’s particularly notable given that the play has hitherto been presented in a solidly realist fashion: Alex Marker’s detailed office set relies on plain black walls, but is heavily decorated with paintings and furniture, and Andrew Whadcoat’s lighting remains constant throughout.  Acknowledging the play’s fictionality at such a heightened moment after three quarters of an hour of realism was a surprisingly powerful way of breaking the tension across the audience.  It was interesting to later read the director’s note which also speculates about Brecht’s possible influence on Grieg.

As the play concludes, the decision on the letter of the last resort made, and the relationship between John and the Prime Minister apparently reset, interesting questions remain.  The play opens with the Prime Minister determined to do things differently, and refusing to use a template for a letter of condolence (“Start as you mean to go on?” asks John).  On learning of the letter of last resort, her very first question is, “Is there a template?”  The tone is sarcastic, but the Prime Minister increasingly relies on John’s guidance, to the point where the whole exercise begins to look more like a rite of passage, a way for the establishment to ensure conformity in new leaders.  Certainly at times it begins to feel as though John has had a similar experience with previous Prime Ministers.

Thanks to its clever writing, strong performances, and taut direction, The Letter of Last Resort is a gripping and entertaining one act play which raises many questions, and supplies no easy answers.

Andrew Lawston, June 2021

Photography by Jane Arnold-Forster

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