The last time playwright Jonathan Maitland wrote about the Conservative party – back in the quiet years of Coalition government – he resurrected the story of Margaret Thatcher’s downfall. When it sold out, one critic figured the audience must be nostalgic for a time when British politics was still dramatic. How odd those words seem now….
Maitland’s new play is about the man who’s done more than most to re-dramify British politics: Boris Johnson. The result – The Last Temptation of Boris Johnson – is a play of two halves. The first act is a comedic but probing take on the night in February 2016 when Boris (then still Mayor of London) decided to break with Downing Street and back the Leave campaign – after a dinner with his then wife (the Brexiteer QC Marina Wheeler), the Goves and Evening Standard owner Evgeny Lebedev.
Having established its premise, the second act goes for something completely different. Now it’s 2029 and a slimmer, speccier Johnson is preparing to launch his fourth bid to lead the Tories (and depose beleaguered prime minister, Dominic Raab). To do so, he must confront the fallout of that fateful night: the fractured relationships, his dented popularity, and – last but not least – the decade-long Brexit chaos. If that’s not enough, he’s receiving other-worldly visitations from past prime ministers (including Spitting Image’s Steve Nallon as a pitch-perfect Mrs Thatcher).
If that makes Temptation sound like a bad student revue, fear not – Maitland is keen to stress that the play is much more than Carry On Boris. ‘The show might be funny,’ Maitland adds, ‘but it’s a serious comedy.’ In that spirit, he had one demand of the director: no silly wigs. ‘All it would take is one bad wig to kill us,’ he says. Hence why Will Barton – the actor playing Johnson – now sports a perfect mop of bleach-blond hair.
It’s true that Maitland’s portrayal of Boris is three-dimensional (more impressively, so are the women in the play: no fashionable bullying of Sarah Vine here). It’s equally clear that Maitland – a former Today reporter – has done his homework. The dinner party is rich with true-to-life details, including an awkward loudspeaker call with Cameron-loyalist Oliver Letwin. He tells me – perhaps rather conveniently – that it was inspired partly by The Spectator’s juicy coverage of the pre-referendum manoeuvring.
As a playwright, Maitland wants to get inside the heads of those at the centre of events. His Thatcher-era play – Dead Sheep – examined the motivations of Geoffrey Howe as he prepared to make his seismic resignation speech. Maitland set out to understand the influence of those nearest and dearest to Howe – most pertinently his wife Elspeth, who disliked the prime minister. In Temptation, Maitland’s Boris juggles similar dilemmas.
Was it not a risk writing a play which risked being torpedoed by a sudden change of events (indeed the day after we meet, Johnson announces he will make a second run for leader). ‘Not really,’ says Maitland. ‘Even if he becomes PM during the run, we can add a line in about how he’d had a brief, unhappy spell in Number 10 and now wants a second go.’
A brief unhappy spell? Maitland doesn’t hide his disdain for Boris, rattling off his list of grievances minutes into our meeting: ‘he’s dishonest, he’s incompetent, he engages in dog-whistle politics…’ Nevertheless, he’s been surprised at the response from the anti-Boris brigade. One left-leaning critic – known for his obsessive Brexit-bashing – even accused Maitland of playing into Boris’s hands, as if just putting him on stage could brainwash us all into die-hard Johnsonites.
I was curious on press night whether we might see any Westminster royalty in the house. Alas, it was only actors and television types. Maitland insists that at least one Johnson – Rachel the Remainer – is coming to see the show, but he can’t say when. ‘She’s told me she’s coming in disguise,’ he adds.
He’s hopeful, though, that the play’s other parliamentarian, Michael Gove, might make an appearance. ‘He’s cultured and he’s got a good sense of humour,’ he says sounding like a man with his fingers firmly crossed. Maitland admits he has a soft spot for Gove, and not just as the man who stood between Boris and Downing Street. We chat about Gove’s own political crossroads: was he right to throw his support behind the doomed Withdrawal Agreement?
‘Having already gone against Boris, I suspect he realised he was another betrayal away from being seen as a professional Judas,’ Maitland says. ‘So by supporting the deal, he remains in the running for bigger things. It’s a very interesting bind.’ Interesting indeed. Has the Westminster watcher found his next subject? Mr Gove might want to mind his step.