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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 November 2003, 10:54 GMT
How can rail privatisation be turned into a play?
Kings, queens, battles, romances, intrigue... these are the stuff of drama. Plays surely aren't about the inner workings of Railtrack, train operating companies, or John Major's transport policy? Well, they are now.

Passengers
Delays and frustation
Arriving on a platform in York at 1930 GMT on Thursday is The Permanent Way, a new play exploring the intricacies of the privatisation of British Rail.

No satire this, nor something written to titillate trainspotters. It is a real play, by a real playwright, David Hare, thought of by many to be one of the greatest living exponents of the art.

The tale of how plans were drawn up in 1991 to sell off British Rail into an infrastructure company (Railtrack) and several train operators (such as Virgin and Connex) does not, at first glance, seem to be the kind of thing that would make compelling drama.

Hare's previous works include The Absence of War (about Labour's election defeats), The Blue Room (in which Nicole Kidman's performance was famously described as "pure theatrical Viagra"), and The Hours, the film starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Kidman.

And he is in no doubt that, although the subject may appear unpromising, in fact the story is a compelling one.

"It's such an incredible story," he says. "People think they know the story, but those have seen rehearsals for the play are quite astonished when they see what the whole story consists of."

So what is it that makes it worthy of a play?

"It's a story about bad government," says Hare. "A piece of legislation was conceived in 1991 by a Conservative party that expected to lose the next election and never really thought it would put it through.

"It was then mismanaged by the Treasury and the Ministry of Transport, and the human consequences on large numbers of people has been quite catastrophic. The play tells the story of the effect of that bad legislation on real people's lives."

Who is responsible

Opinion is divided on the merits of privatisation; many think it a complete disaster, but its defenders maintain for example that it succeeded in increasing the number of passengers on the trains. Finding people who will defend the actual style of privatisation, though, is much harder.

Potters Bar crash
Potters Bar started a blame game
The complicated way in which responsibility for track was divided was one of the factors blamed for crashes such as at Hatfield in 2000 and Potters Bar in 2002, in which four and seven people died respectively.

The formation of Network Rail from the ashes of Railtrack, and the recent announcement that maintenance work will be taken back "in-house" from sub-contractors, have been identified by some analysts as corrections to the privatisation model.

Hare says he found the drama both in the intrigue between government departments, and in the impact of the whole scheme on ordinary folk. The play was created after nine months spent talking to people working at every level of the industry, and with passengers and crash survivors.

The play, which he describes as a "documentary drama", uses the real words of these people, spoken by actors from the Out of Joint theatre company.

Blurred lines

The mixing of fact and fiction which is necessarily employed with docu-dramas both in the theatre and on television worries some commentators who feel the audience does not know where one ends and the other begins.

Weapons adviser Dr David Kelly
The inquiry into Dr Kelly's death has been dramatised
But there is no denying the growth in the format. There have been successful dramatisations of the Steven Lawrence inquiry and the Lord Hutton inquiry on the stage, and numerous TV examples including The Deal, a drama about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's relationship, and just this week on BBC One, Holy Cross.

It is a trend welcomed by Hare, who says the Lawrence and Hutton inquiry adaptations were "absolutely gripping and important plays". He adds that "tackling the subjects of real life" is one of the most exciting things in British theatre.

"I've always thought it's good for playwrights to do what I call be rebuked by reality - in other words, to find out what people are really feeling and thinking. Often I think in the way people express themselves about it, it's better than the dialogue that playwrights come up with," Hare says.

"The melding of thought and feeling that you get in the place where real events happened is for me incomparable, and it's why I work in the theatre at all."


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