Programme Notes on The Confessions of Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown is a huge character whose fall from power even during his premiership in Downing Street was frequently described as an unfolding Shakespearian tragedy, although no one could exactly pin down which play – Richard II or King Lear or Macbeth? – they were alluding to.
Gordon Brown photo from the National Archives
Brown was one of the longest serving and most successful Chancellor of the Exchequers in British history and his three year reign as Prime Minister was sorely tested by the greatest world economic crisis since the 1930’s Great Depression.
Reviled or adored, Gordon Brown is a hugely dominant figure in the history of the rise and the fall of the three New Labour governments.
But there was something there – a question of character – that intrigued infuriated, appalled or transfixed the British public and which finally ended in his electoral defeat in 2010.
What was it about this superbly capable moral man that did not ‘fit’ the highest political office in the land?
Based on extensive interview research with figures within Brown’s leadership circle, The Confessions of Gordon Brown is a dramatic attempt to provide an answer to that question.
The Confessions is a broad work of political satire as well as a careful study of all of the necessary elements, and hidden arts, of modern political leadership.
Whether we believe in them or not, our modern political leaders are media creations composited into being by PR teams, pollsters, legions of ‘special advisors’, image consultants, elocution experts, and, possibly most importantly, hairdressers.
These digital media creations are impossible human beings: all seeing, all knowing, telegenic, fertile, wise, possessed of the common touch, generous, wryly sharp tongued, and supremely confident.
Somewhere beneath these screens of power is a man, or woman, who has doubts and fears like the rest of us. But the Leader is always separated from the Led.
The Confessions is also about that older story – the very nature of Kingship itself.
From our beginnings in Mesopotamia, around 3000BC, Kings have arisen to lead and order the people. Amongst the first recorded rulers is Ur-Nammu, the ‘shepherd’ of the ancient city of Urim, who gave the world the first legal code in 2100BC.
King Ur Nammu mask
In his praise song, recorded in cuneiform script on a clay tablet over 4000 years ago, Ur-Nammu justifies his regency over the city and its people.
‘The God of Enlil has given me the task of keeping the Land secure, with unscathed troops. I lie down on the splendid bed in its delightful bedchamber. I cause the people to eat splendid food; I am their Enkimdu, the God of irrigation and cultivation. I am the good shepherd whose sheep multiply greatly.
‘Since I have been adorned with their rulership, no one imposes taxes on my abundant crops which grow tall. My commands bring about joy in the great fortresses of the mountains. The joy of my city and the territory of Sumer delights me. I release water into the canals of Sumer making the trees grow tall on their banks.
‘The watercourse of my city is full of fish and the air above it is full of birds. In my city honey plants are planted, and the carp grow fat.
‘I freed the land from thieves, robbers, and rebels’
– Praise of Ur-Nammu
The words may be the oldest ever recorded but their political message remains ever fresh, ever current.
Even in modern democracies we still elect not a man but a King, a being of supernormal powers. A Man God who both carries and symbolises our desires that the future will be brighter than the past.
That our cities shall not fall. That the run on the currency will stop. Our enemies vanquished. And that the Sun will tomorrow, as always, rise in the East.
We are electing Hope.
‘On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.
On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.’
-Barack Obama’s Inaugural Presidential Address, Jan 2009
Barak Obama Hope Poster by Shepard Fairey
The soaring rhetoric of President Obama’s inaugural speech on the steps of the US Capitol in Washington mesmerised an entire world. Obama’s praise song like that of his ancient predecessor Ur-Nammu also promised a brighter future. More Hope.
What changes then across time?
Against that promise of a brighter future is another constant truth – the inevitable rediscovery of the limitations of our new ruler’s earthly power. The order of things is usually determined by forces far greater than the Leader’s will. Hope alone is not enough.
Are our modern electoral Kings just more elaborate renditions of those ancient roles played out before on the Sumerian plain between the Leader and the Led, and the Ruler and the Ruled?
At least we know now that it is not the God Enlil or Divine Right that makes Kings. We do.
There will never be a shortage of candidates of people who believe they were born to rule others. But do we expect too much, hope for too much from our Leaders? Is the real fault in us for our belief in Kings? In our blind faith?
Why then should we be disappointed when these flawed human beings, who have wants, need bread, require friends just as the Led, so naturally fail us?
By Kevin Toolis
‘I always knew The Confessions of Gordon Brown would be a controversial play but I never expected the Labour Party would try to ban us.
The ban against the play arose as we prepared to stage the Confessions during the September annual Labour Party conference in Brighton.
We approached the organisers to advertise in the Labour conference magazine – that is sent to every one of the 10,000 delegates. Initally our advert for the play was eagerly accepted and we were even offered a 25% discount on a 1/8 page advert. But then overnight, presumably after talks with Ed Miliband’s office or someone high up, we were summarily told all 1/8 page slots were now full. When we offered to pay for a quarter page advert we were informed the whole magazine was now full unless we paid £10,000s for a single page normally bought by nuclear power companies or rich unions like Unite. A sum simply beyond the resources of a theatre production company.
Behind the thin pretence, this Labour party ban is a disgraceful almost childish act of censorship reeking both of a Stalinist mind set and gutless political cowardice. Was there something in The Confessions that Labour’s high command feared would catch the conscience of the party leadership? Or their delegates?
Thankfully in a democracy political parties don’t get to ban playwrights and plays. Like Banquo, the Confessions of Gordon Brown did indeed return to the conference feast at the Old Courtroom Theatre in Brighton. We filled our theatre night after night.
Dozens of Labour MPs, including former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, and hundreds of Labour party members have since come to see the play and savour our version of their former leader on stage. And judge the play for themselves.
Ban or no ban this show will go on ,’ – Kevin Toolis