The director of a play about Tony Benn that opens in Clapham this week says it is an important time to revisit the life of the Labour MP.
Tony Benn was MP for Bristol South East from 1950 to 1983 and Chesterfield from 1984 to 2001. Mr Benn was briefly a member of the House of Lords before renouncing his title and serving as a minster in the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan.
Tony’s Last Tape at Omnibus Theatre highlights a key aspect of Mr Benn’s career: his obsessive recording of events in diaries and cassette tapes from the 1930s, through his time in the RAF during the Second World War at Oxford and his political career to his retirement to ‘devote more time to politics’.
This collection has recently been donated to the nation by the Benn family. It is in this context the play is set as an ageing Mr Benn looks through his collection before deciding to make one last tape.
Director Giles Croft explained that the production, which was originally performed at the Nottingham Playhouse, had its origins in a talk Mr Benn was originally due to give at the theatre where Croft was artistic director. However he became ill beforehand and was unable to give the talk, as he never recovered and died in March 2014.
Croft believes that revisiting Benn’s life and political beliefs are particularly important at present with the political polarisation that Brexit and Corbynism have produced. According to Croft, Benn would have supported current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who he shared a strong friendship while offering timely advice.
He said: ‘‘I think he would have been an enthusiastic supporter and a sort of wise counsel so I hope he would have made him a better parliamentarian and politician.’’
Philip Bretherton plays Tony Benn reprising a role that he played in the original 2015 production in Nottingham. Mr Bretherton said that he relished the challenge of a one man play as well as mimicking Benn’s distinctive characteristics.
He said: “His voice was particularly interesting because it was well an old-fashioned voice – Westminster School and Oxford University. It’s an upper middle-class voice that he never attempted to change.’’
Mr Bretherton argued that Mr Benn is still highly relevant in the current political context as well as a chronicler of political history and that he was a true champion of democracy and people power.
He said: “In 1962-63 when he was trying to renounce his peerage he realised how difficult that was, how entrenched the establishment was and the length it would go to defend its privilege and he learnt from that experience that democracy has to fight are seriously entrenched in this country.
“He was one of those politicians who believe that the whole point of having power is to give it back and didn’t take it back for his own aggrandisement or advancement. He wanted to give power back to the people that he represented and to make them have some agency in their own lives.”
However there are no easy answers offered, as Mr Benn said: “There is no final victory there is no final defeat. Just the same battles to be fought over and over again.”
Tony’s Last Tape runs at The Omnibus Theatre, Clapham until 20 April.