Ed#482: Take Me to Your Leader

17 April 2015 Alan Attwood

Ed#482: Take Me to Your Leader

Alan Attwood, Ed#482, April 2015

WHEN I read Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, my mind wasn’t only on Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and court intrigue. I also thought about Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and the Labor Party’s number crunchers. Because although it is set in the 16th century, Wolf Hall is essentially about politics and power and ambition. These themes are timeless; they are also the foundations to many of Shakespeare’s plays. The plotters in Julius Caesar, for example, played a similar game to MPs who moved against Rudd in 2010, and – even more recently, though with less immediate success – Tony Abbott in February. Even those who profess to be indifferent to politics can be engaged by a good old-fashioned leadership challenge. Shakespeare understood that; so does Mantel. Whether this is a good thing is another matter altogether; we should probably all care more about policies and platforms and the big picture and less about personalities and leaders’ approval ratings. But that’s not how things go: PM Abbott making a statement about challenging economic times ahead is a much less compelling item for the evening news than, say, Malcolm Turnbull (just to pluck a name from the air) issuing a statement indicating he’s tired of the status quo and, damn it all, wants the PM’s job. Now that would be worth watching – a contest with some clearly identifiable winners and losers. It should be pointed out, however, that the stakes aren’t quite so high for those vanquished in modern power tussles: they tend to lose their jobs, whereas their counterparts in Shakespeare’s plays or Mantel’s novels often lose their lives. After Federal ALP leader Bill Hayden was rolled by Bob Hawke in a party-room coup in February 1983, I recall a TV interviewer commiserating with him in funereal tones. Hayden’s reply was along the lines of: “Oh, I don’t know, in some countries they take you outside and shoot you.”

Actor Kevin Spacey knows his Shakespeare. He has starred on stage, for example, as Richard III – one of the most ruthless political schemers in history. It’s possible to discern more than a bit of Richard in the ambitious Frank Underwood, Spacey’s character in the TV series House of Cards. In the US series, an adaptation of an earlier British production of the same name, Spacey/Underwood regularly turns to the camera to address viewers directly. This is unusual in TV, although Shakespeare did it centuries ago with his soliloquies. In different languages, in different ways, and at different times, all those who have plotted to topple a king (or their equivalent) have echoed Macbeth’s lines: If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly… This is politics as Nike slogan: just do it.

Spacey’s House of Cards is set in Washington DC. The US presidential system is a gift both for dramatists and political junkies, because the manoeuvring and political game-playing is interminable. The next election will not be held until November next year, but already several aspiring contenders have formally declared their candidacy.

Aspiring Underwoods need money, contacts, lots of stamina and not too many scruples. Meanwhile, a weird kind of transference takes place between the real and made-up political worlds. Spacey has commented on the way themes or incidents from House of Cards are later mirrored in life. The same thing can happen in reverse: sometimes it can be hard to recall if another TV series, The West Wing, ‘borrowed’ events from the Clinton or Bush Administrations or anticipated them. Perhaps it’s just that some things don’t change. Mantel’s Cromwell and Spacey’s Underwood speak the same language.

» Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue.

This article appeared in Ed#482 of The Big Issue magazine.