David Hare has indubitably managed to parlay the fact that he wrote some great plays in the twentieth century into getting some truly rancid ones commissioned in the twenty-first. But while it’s no masterpiece, he’s definitely on to something with ‘Straight Line Crazy’.
More specifically, he’s on to something in sensing that the relatively obscure (in the UK, anyway) New York city planner Bob Moses would make a great subject for a biographical drama. ‘Straight Line Crazy’ reconvenes Hare, actor Ralph Fiennes and director Nicholas Hytner for an altogether more substantial work than ‘Beat the Devil’, the theoretically admirable, actually half-baked monologue that reopened the Bridge Theatre after the first lockdown.
What’s particularly effective is that ‘Straight Line Crazy’ shuns the traditional cradle-to-grave biographical format, and instead shows the unelected Moses at just two junctures in his life, in 1926 and 1955. You’d have to look it up to determine how old Moses is actually supposed to be in either timeline (Fiennes wears a toupee in ’26 and has a limp in ’55, it’s not aggressively transformative). Crucially, though, it’s a play about how much Moses doesn’t change as much as how he does: key is the fact that what makes him a progressive revolutionary in the first half makes him a borderline monster in the second.
Self-important, arrogant, detached and fanatical, Fiennes’s magnetic Moses is a case study in the advantages and dangers of (nominally) benevolent dictatorship. ‘We must advance their fortunes without having any respect for their opinions’ he declares, just one of many expressions of disdain for a working-class he sincerely wants to uplift.
At the risk of being a bit basic, Fiennes shies well clear of Voldemort territory: despite a few expository rants, his Moses simply remains detached from the humanity he wishes to help, his frustrations reserved for by anybody holding him up. He is genuinely determined to enact a grand, improving plan, genuinely not in it for financial gain, and genuinely startled by anyone who lets sentiment about knocking down buildings, or destroying ancient orchards, hold him back.
His (fictional) core planning team of Ariel Porter (Samuel Barnett) and Finnuala Connell (Siobhán Cullen) remains unchanged between 1926 and 1955, with the trusted Finnuala tasked with firing new hires who disagree with him ideologically. But after 30 years of working together, he still has limited personal relationships with his lieutenants, his only chink of conventional humanity his concern for his ailing wife Mary (which he tries to hide).
In 1926, he’s the parks controller of Long Island, and he has directed all his fanatical strength of will towards opening up its beaches to holidaymakers from the city, who have just been liberated (relatively) by the introduction of the 45-hour working week (down from 70). Moses’s shit-kicking approach towards anyone who disagrees with him goes down well because his opponents are the pampered elite who object to the great unwashed being invited out to their island. In the face of considerable objections, Moses simply starts building the two highways required for his project anyway, legality be damned. And we know what happened: he won, and history thanked him.
Come ’55 he’s vastly more powerful, and has started to mess with entirely more sympathetic sections of society, displacing some quarter of a million New Yorkers via his expressways that have slashed through the city mercilessly. In 1926 he berated his assistant Ariel for fractionally altering the route of a highway to avoid a wealthy landowner’s prize orchard; in 1955 he’s ripping entire communities apart as his arbitrary straight lines demolish old slums and force their inhabitants far away. He’s facing a huge backlash as he schemes to essentially destroy Manhattan’s Soho district in the name of his giant roads. Has he changed and lost sight of his ideals? Or has he in fact stayed exactly the same? Fiennes’s excellent performance strongly suggests the latter – his Moses has never had any empathy, merely a strong belief he knows what’s best for everyone else. Thank God he was only interested in roads: city planning sounds like a dry subject, but in Hare’s Moses you can see echoes of every autocrat from Caesar to Putin (via, it has to be said, Dominic Cummings). The big red light is his career-long disdain for public transport: he finds it vulgar, and becomes evasive and vague any time he’s challenged over the hypocrisy of taking this attitude while claiming to know what’s best for the poor.
It’s a fascinating true story, and an intriguing parable about the nature of power and democracy. Moses considers the fact that he’s unelected a strength that lets him push through controversial ideas that will ultimately prove popular. But in the final analysis, his total detachment from what the people actually want is not the superpower he sees it as.
So yes, the best David Hare play in an age, by some distance. It needs to be said, though, that for all its essential effectiveness – helped by Fiennes’s powerhouse performance – it’s still pretty clunky. It heavily leans on improbably expository dialogues, it’s extremely static, and the other characters are all so minor beyond Moses – many of them are fictional – that they might as well have just been called Person A, Person B, etc. Where playwrights like Pinter or Churchill refined and distilled their craft in later years, Hare writes dialogue with less subtlety and ambition than he did 30 years ago. Moses’s tale is fascinating, and I’m glad this play exists to share it. But there’s a frustrating underlying lack of theatricality, a willingness to be static and talky and entirely formally unadventurous so long as it gets the job done. It’s efficient, but it doesn’t even seem to aspire to be great art, and you could say the same for Hytner’s direction here. This play is Hare’s own straight line, cutting directly when meandering is often half the fun.