The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson, Park Theatre
- Credit: Archant
Bojo, Brexit and the burden of high office are debated at the Islington dinner party which ‘changed history’ says playwright Jonathan Maitland
An Islington dinner party; slow roasted shoulder of lamb and a roll call of guests that includes Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev.
There's been much hand-wringing about the moment that tipped us into the Brexit farrago, but Jonathan Maitland is convinced that evening in 2016 was it.
His play The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson at Park Theatre not only dramatises the dinner, but fast forwards 10 years to a post Brexit Britain with Boris in the wilderness, hatching a comeback.
"The dinner party is extremely well documented, it was at the house that Boris lived in with his then wife. Liz Hurley was invited, but didn't turn up," says Maitland.
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"The moment I heard about it, I thought 'what a great justification for examining that hoary dramatic convention of the dinner party play?' It was the dinner party that changed history by persuading Boris to vote for leave and the reason we are probably still heading for the Out door."
Maitland, whose plays Dead Sheep and An Audience With Jimmy Savile were also staged at the Park, is convinced that Boris was a decisive factor in the referendum outcome.
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"Key people in the Leave campaign say 'if it hadn't been for Boris we wouldn't have won'. He's such a big campaigner, he and Michael Gove gave people in the shires respectable dinner party cover to vote for Brexit. I know for a fact that Cameron blames Boris for the mess we are in."
With Boris The Musical 2 about to open at the nearby King's Head, this divisive figure has inspired other writers, but Maitland insists his play is different.
"I have seen him portrayed many times as buffoonish a caricature, but I only wanted to do this if it was more realistic. He's colourful, entertaining but enigmatic, there's this extraordinary behaviour in his private life. We all think we know him but we don't really."
Crouch End comic Arabella Weir, who plays Daily Mail columnist and Gove's partner Sarah Vine, says he's portrayed as a "calculated buffoon".
"He's obviously super bright but like Clinton can't keep his cock in his trousers. As I say in the play, for a clever man he's been a stupid politician."
Johnson famously wrote out the arguments for and against leaving Europe, and confessed to 'veering around like a shopping trolley'.
So what made up his mind?
"That's the big question, his motivation," says Maitland.
"The two key components of any political decision is personal ambition and principle. Part of his problem is he looks like he wants it too much, we all assume it's personal ambition, but to say he is completely without principal is reductive.
"In his mind ambition isn't necessarily a bad thing, what's good for the country is also good for him, it's the dovetailing of personal ambition and principle."
But Weir is utterly convinced of Bojo's self interest: "I was astonished when Boris said he was joining the Leave campaign, I thought 'is he doing that for real?' Like everyone I thought he was doing it for self advancement rather than conviction."
She also lays the Brexit blame firmly at his door.
"If Boris had thought about this harder and not go on board we wouldn't be in the shitstorm we are now. Act II is set in the future and rightly blame him for where we are now and how we got where we got."
As he launches a leadership bid, Prime Ministers from Blair to Thatcher and Churchill appear in his head to muse upon the pursuit of power and the scars of holding high office.
Weir says she's "suggesting Churchill rather than doing the full Oscar winning Gary Oldman thing," and ex Spitting Image peformer Steve Nallon reprises his turn as Thatcher.
"You can see from the faces of Blair and Thatcher how they are haunted by having done this extraordinary, impossible job," says Maitland.
"It's far too big a burden for one person. It's a huge Shakespearean thing to want it. How can your mental health recover? It's a life sentence and extraordinary that anyone would want to do it."
Weir's take on it is that "it's like obsessing over Robbie Williams".
"When you want something too much, you are driven mad when you get it and driven mad when you don't. But isn't that true of anyone who has had any real power?"
Maitland adds: "The play is about power; why people want it, what it does to them if they don't get it. It's about Brexit and where we would be in 10 years time.
"And it poses questions about Boris. At a time when we are at our most divided do we want the most divisive politician of our generation to lead us?
"Plus there is a huge competence issue, he couldn't run his own leadership campaign - but is that a bar to high office?"
Weir is firm that politicians should eschew high fiving populism.
"The more they take part in Big Brother or help themselves to celebrity culture on Twitter, the worse they look. It ought to be that they have a dignified statesperson approach to the job. They should be living like doctors. You don't want to see your doctor larking about on Celebrity Big Brother, they need to uphold the dignity of office and realise it's a wrap around job."
Ultimately broadcaster and journalist Maitland thinks that despite these anxiety inducing times, Brexit will turn out to be only a "bump in the road."
"It's not as bad as we think, we are a robust country we've survived a lot of things over the centuries. We will be ok."
The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson at Park Theatre May 9-June 8.