Originally staged at the Tricycle Theatre, David Greig’s play The Letter of Last Resort examines the inherent absurdity at the heart of the principle of nuclear deterrence. Possessing nuclear weapons, the argument goes, prevents other nuclear powers from ever firing theirs. A successful deterrent will never be used – but that will only happen if people believe you are willing to use it.
Greig places the difficulties in rationalising the arguments behind the nuclear deterrent in the hands of a new Prime Minister, faced with a difficult decision on her first day in office. Belinda Lang’s PM is somewhat of an ingenue, yet to be embittered by years in power. Told that she has to write orders to the commanders of the country’s Trident nuclear submarines, only to be opened in the event of London’s destruction in nuclear war, she is at first incredulous, reasoning that she could write anything since there is no practical chance of the orders being read.
But write them she must – and to take them seriously, she must consider whether to order the commanders to mount retaliatory strikes, or to not retaliate. Lang’s PM insists on being taken through a role-play, to try and work out some reason within her confused feelings on the subject. Her determination to see the Trident commanders to whom she is writing as individuals – men who, in the event of the UK being lost due to nuclear attack, will have lost their families as much as their homeland – adds a human dimension to what could easily descend into pure hypotheticals.
And just when she thinks she has a handle on the moral dilemmas around each scenario, her adviser (Simon Chandler) points out the ramifications of such a decision. In order to be seen to be a rational leader, the Prime Minister, she must be prepared to conduct the most irrational of acts – or at least, be believed to be capable of doing so. The absurdities invite comparison with Yes, Prime Minister, which is a relationship the play recognises. But we are always told that the sitcom was never far from the truth, so similarities are surely inevitable.
Greig delicately, and with no small amount of humour, shows that this is one issue where the question is not one of wrong or right answers, but of where one chooses to dismount from the circular argument. As the play ends with Lang scratching out her handwritten Letter of Last Resort, we do not know what her decision is, but we are with her whatever it is.
At just 35 minutes long, The Letter of Last Resort is one of BBC radio’s shortest one-off dramas: most plays in this slot run an hour and a half. Saturday Drama is one of the few slots that can expand and contract to fit the play, and one can’t help feeling that other productions would benefit from the concision on display here. Greig’s one-act two-hander feels more involving, more intense than many a play three times the length.
- The Letter of Last Resort, BBC Radio 4, Saturday June 1