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The marital subtext.

A Fortnightly Review.

State of the Union
by Nick Hornby.
Directed by Stephen Frears.

Cast: Rosamond Pike and Chris O’Dowd.
Ten ten-minute episodes.

First broadcast on Sundance TV in May 2019, then available on BBC iplayer and again on BBC2 HD.



IN A WAY, this programme is reminiscent of Bedtime, a half-hour series written by Andy Hamilton, broadcast in 2001, and starring Sheila Hancock and Timothy West. From behind the privacy of their bedroom curtains, this mini-drama delved into the emotional intimacies of an older couple.

Notes and CommentState of the Union is on the opposite, more public, side of the marital spectrum: Tom and Louise meet in a dreary, virtually empty, Kentish Town pub before they visit a therapist to discuss their marriage. I watched first because a friend recommended it, and was gripped by the springy, bantering interplay of the dialogue, the marvellously intimate, subtle, nuanced close-up performances and the careful, unob(and unin)trusive direction. End of story? Well, not quite.

Beneath my admiration a couple of things prompted some curiosity. First… what was the whole thing actually about?

Beneath my admiration a couple of things prompted some curiosity. First, how did the gender-dynamic in this imaginative piece actually play out? Was it conventional, or original, or challenging stereotypes? Then, more deeply, what was the whole thing actually about? — besides the obvious and fascinating incursion into the issue of what a ‘marriage’ is or could be, and the specifics of this troubled moment in a relationship.

The gender issue first. She drinks white wine, he drinks a pint, So far, so gender-conventional. However, there is subversive play with entrenched expectations: she is not only a scientist (gerontologist), but she is the breadwinner, supporting him, an out-of-work music journalist. Does this arts/science divide have spin-offs in –again, conventional – assumptions that women can express emotions and that men can’t? My sense, as I was watching, was that on the whole, Tom talked more about what he was feeling. Sure, Louise expresses regret, is sometime tearful, is clearly a feeling, passionate woman. However, there is an interesting clue in the linguistic style: Louise asks many more questions than Tom, and this, in itself, puts her at some distance from her own emotional expression, constantly directing attention onto him. It is almost as if her ‘character’ operates at times as a proto-therapist, and this gives Tom more emotional ‘knowledge’. So the question here is – do some of the role reversals leave her with too little emotion, because he is given the lion’s share?

There is another interesting play with gendered assumptions. Louise (and an unnamed minor female figure) both physically ‘attack’ their men; the latter hits her bloke just after they emerge from the therapist’s house, and Louise pushes Tom hard, so that he falls over in front of a car, as they are crossing the road. Neither of these physical actions has any serious consequences — indeed, it gives rise later to a degree of wittiness between Tom and Louise, which I won’t give away. A touch of domestic ‘violence’ from the women, contrasting with the dominant reality that most recorded domestic violence is by men.  Also, at one point the man from this unnamed couple comes into the pub, and he is crying — a small challenge to the idea that men find it hard to, never, rarely, shed tears. Later, his other half arrives and they leave the pub together, she holding him by the hand, almost as if she is leading a child – just subtly in the background of the main Tom-Louise action. The woman seems – even if very briefly – to be dominant, while the man is emotional. Subtle role reversal?

Although their marriage may be in crisis, the subtlety of the dialogue and their familiarity with each other’s minds demonstrates great intimacy. Tom and Louise do crosswords together, they seem to have no conflicts over their two children. Despite the crisis, they unravel – over narrative intervals – sexual issues, each enlightening the other, sometimes defensive, sometimes just not necessarily finding the right words. There are differences of opinion certainly; even Brexit gets a mention. They play off each other, batting metaphors to and fro. This is the stuff that happens between two people who know each other very well indeed.

The second major question – what is the whole thing about? – can be answered in two ways. The most obvious is that, via this very specific relationship, a clear major theme is the nature of marriage, and particularly long-term marriage. Must there be, need there be, sex? Is sex lust, love, desire, duty, feeling? Over time, does boredom win out? Do all marriages drift into permanent marital crisis? Where does friendship fit in?

None of these questions are asked crudely, and that is a great tribute to the nuanced drama this is – it is billed as a ‘comedy series’, but I suspect that is more to garner viewers than an accurate description. Without giving anything away, it is possible to say that after ten episodes, there is a significant rapprochement between them. This has consequences for the therapy, which, again, I won’t give away in terms of plot.

So what is the whole thing about, beyond the theme of marriage? The answer to this lies in the format and the way the story plays out within that – in other words, what is conveyed via the subtext. Tom and Louise meet ten minutes before the therapy session, which conventionally lasts for fifty minutes. In these ten minutes (as if borrowed from the ‘therapy’ hour) they range over issues and feelings which would normally ‘belong’ in the therapy sessions. We never see the actual therapy sessions (of course not – they are private)  – but we are privy to the way Tom and Louise show their ability to deal with the issues – and we also are privy to the consequences this has for their life together outside the sessions.

In view of the ending (which I am not giving away, though by now you may well have guessed it!), this means that the overarching subtext is that therapy is not necessary, or that it may not be necessary, or that it may be superfluous. It is as if the ten-minute ‘sessions’ are, in fact,  a successful substitute for therapy. That, it seems to me, to be the surprising but, actually, fascinating subtext of this mini-drama.

However, given the delicacy of the enterprise, the ending leaves us with a twin message: Tom’s very last affectionate line to Louise as he goes to get them another drink (back to man-buys-woman-drink), spoken out loud. Sotto voce, as he goes to the bar, we just about hear him say ‘same again’. How about that for subtext?

State of the Union is also published by Penguin Books, set out as a novella, rather than as TV scripts. Or just stream it (on Sundance) or watch it on the BBC iPlayer. See what you think.

Michelene Wandor is a poet, playwright and short story writer. She has also written a critique of Creative Writing — The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived (Palgrave).

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