During the last election I was at a rally in Nottingham where Jeremy Corbyn was speaking. The warm up act introduced him ‘with the words of the late, great, Tony Benn-There is no final victory; there is no final defeat; just the same battles that have to be fought over and over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up!’ The large crowd cheered; their resolve stiffened by the instructions of a socialist titan. I turned to my wife, feeling slightly unsteady; ‘I think I wrote that’.
I had. Not the first bit, the important bit, about returning battles, but the last part. Benn didn’t swear, I was told by his friends and family who have seen the play in which these words were uttered. And which were then tweeted following the Labour election defeat in 2015. It’s now out there though; on websites and mugs and t-shirts (really, it is). Somehow the play had come full circle.
Giles Croft told me of his idea not long after Benn’s death in March 2014. Bennhad been due to speak at the Playhouse as part of his hugely successful touring schedule where people flocked to hear himshare his experience at the centre of the Labour movement. Having become an MP in 1950 and only retiring in 2001 he represented in many waysboth the post war history of the Labour party as well as being at the heart of the debate over its soul and its purpose. Luckily for us Benn was an excellent diarist and recorded his thoughts on this incredible journey every night. The idea of a man towards the end of his life faced with recordings of his younger self has obvious connections with the wonderful Samuel Beckett play, ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’. I was thrilled when asked to try and bring the two together.
I’d never met Benn but had seen him speak and always found him an intriguing figure. Reading the diaries so closely brought both him and post war politics alive in a way I wasn’t anticipating. I was able to speak to Alan Simpson, who as a Nottingham Labour MP for many years is someone that Benn respected hugely and who shared stories that also found their way into the script.
When Stephen, Benn’s eldest son, came to see the show he asked how we knew which was Tony’s favourite dressing gown (we didn’t) and showed us the actual last tape that his father had made. At the Liverpool Everyman we found ourselves caught up in the Labour leader re-election debate, offering thoughts for the BBC news alongside Derek Hatton (who Benn had stood up for during his period of greatest conflict with the Labour leadership). At the Houses of Parliament the ex CND leader Bruce Kent found himself sitting next to Hilary Benn where he was able to offer some thoughts on the latter’s support for bombing Syria. Somehow the play began to move into a slightly different space, where it both investigated the life of a major political player but also became ever so slightly involved in the shadows of the present political situation. And then that rally; that quote: ‘Toughen up, bloody toughen up’.
It’s clear that for many who have come to see the show that this has been a chance to remember and to celebrate the life of a man that they felt a deep connection with. Younger members of the audience have seemed fascinated to understand where the roots and traditions of a radicalism that they may be yearning for can be found. And others, I hope, have enjoyed the allusions to Beckett’s celebrated monologue.
It’s been a fantastic journey; and now that there is the possibility of a genuine conversation about the kind of society that we might look to create once the Brexit dust has settled (and it would have been fascinating to hear Benn talk on this, being such an advocate of the primacy of parliamentary democracy) this seems like the ideal time to bring the play back for a proper run in London. With the variety of activities happening around the show – Tracey Moberly’s exhibition, Martin Rowson’s live drawing of Philip Bretherton, who plays Benn with a wonderful mixture of frailty and passion, as well asa number of talks – it really does feel as though Tony’s Last Tape still has the power to both reflect and provoke. It’s very exciting.
Andy Barrett is the writer of Tony’s Last Tape, which runs at Omnibus Theatre 2-20 April – get your tickets HERE→