AND NOW THE REAL ELECTION…AT LAST…
Election day, Tony Benn used to say, is the only time we are all equal. One citizen, one secret vote. And despite the short-sighted, corrupting Blair extension of postal and proxy votes to the merely lazy or self-important, most votes are still cast with a stubby pencil in a schoolroom or community hall. Here, for fourteen hours, (they get a special working-time-directive dispensation) polling clerks from the Council supervise a meticulous regime of privacy, integrity and, supposedly, dignity.
Before our eyes in drift the voters: daffy or drunk, frivolous or earnest, first-time kids, proud new-fledged citizens from the ends of the earth, the senile and the pompous, the committed or vague. Some you can hardly trust to hold a pencil, others are brisk and sure; lovers giggle, spouses snar, but they’re all equal. James Graham, author of THIS HOUSE and COALITION, set out to express the ordinary moment of voting, in which this preposterous, overblown lying campaign must end. Comic without cynicism, it is unexpectedly touching.
This Donmar undertaking is, as its director Josie Rourke explains at previews, “a weird television-theatre experiment thing”. Its official opening will actually be its last night – election night, Thursday 7th, when it goes out live on More4 TV. The audience arrives half an hour early to queue in the fake polling station and vote for fictional characters: good to see Ian McKellen, Nicholas Hytner, John Carey , Yevgeny Levedev and a host of notables meekly obeying. It runs precisely from 8.30 to 10pm, shadowing that weary last 90 minutes before polling stations close, boxes are whisked off to the constituency count and exit-polls announced. It has an improbable cast of 44, nearly a quarter being bankable stars (Judi Dench and Finty Williams, Mark Gatiss , Catherine Tate , Tim West ..!) It is set in a supposed London marginal, in a nicely evoked primary-school hall, with the council staff forced to sit on the vaulting-horse because nobody turned up to open it at eight as the law requires and unlock the chairs, so Kirsty the poll-clerk (Tate) took an axe to the door .) .
I won’t spoil it with detail – though the Russian lesbians with a selfie-stick and the shrieking teenagers shouting “Siri – who do I vote for?” are memorable, as are the pinstriped upper-middle bickerers, and Judi Dench’s cameo as a domineering mother of her (real!) daughter Finty Williams. Nor will I reveal the daft plotline which emerges concerning malpractice, Haribos, and increasing desperation. You really have to watch it. If only for the joy of seeing Mark Gatiss as a polling officer gradually overcome by events.
But for all the jokes – and they are many – for me it breathed a kind of awe. From the first moment when big Llewella Gideon crashes to the ground and demands that Timothy West (another great cameo) turns her voting-slip upside down without looking at it, the principle of individual privacy is stressed. As, for all the disasters and pomposities, is the idea of dutiful civic respect for rules: there is a grassroots glory in their petty, old-fashioned carefulness. “It has to mean something!” says Gatiss desperately, as ten o’clock nears in mounting disorder. Farcical it may be, but Graham catches something of the immensity of democracy which must descend to small simple places and embrace the dim and grand alike; petty protocol guards fragile freedom, and stubby pencils may put an end to power.
By the way, for those who believe all theatre to be rife with bilious bias, note young Mr Graham’s subtlety. There’s a poignant moment as the no-hope Tory candidate – young, black, of Nigerian parentage – chokes up with emotion at the sight of the ballot paper “I’m actually – a bit – seeing my name there…my parents would…”. Clever, and honest.
Rating four . The Vote is broadcast live from The Donmar Warehouse on More4 at 8.25pm, Thursday 7 May or available on demand on All 4 from Friday 8 May http://www.channel4.com