Dominic Cummings on stage: a tragic hero reduced to farce
'DOM — The Play' captures just how far Brexit's chief architect has fallen
For some reason, Britain seems only able to comprehend its Deep State through the medium of comic personae. Forty years on, “Sir Humphrey” remains the model for smooth, patrician, Civil Service Blobbery. Alastair Campbell only really came alive when he could be equated with Malcolm Tucker. And once Dominic Cummings won the Brexit referendum, Benedict Cumberbatch (himself a descendant of hereditary diplomats, and more distantly the Royal Family) was summoned to make sense of that political moment.
Cumberbatch always looked too soft and startled for the role, and so it is worthwhile that Cummings has been reinterpreted in DOM — The Play, a new production staged at Westminster’s own The Other Palace. And its star Chris Porter — though still too handsome and Home Counties — is a far better sketch: woollen-hatted, untucked, eyes alive with Cummings’s bug-eyed, stoat-like cunning. The story he tells is Cummings’s own, in a passable imitation of his north-eastern burr. The rise and fall of a defeated, well-meaning intellectual, finally given a fair hearing away from the caricatures of the press.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
The plot is therefore largely cribbed from the defensive narrative found in Cummings’s blog, Substack and various interviews he has given. He presents himself as a chippy political outsider — like Cato the Elder, wedded to his farm and family until summoned to serve his republic. First, he saved the North from a pointless regional assembly in his first referendum campaign, then he revolutionised education with Michael Gove. Next came his star turn in 2016.
Along the way, Cummings developed the eccentric “smart thinking” philosophy which the play relates with admirable sympathy. His problem with politics is less ideological than operational. Society is clogged with flabby, over-promoted mediocrities. Whitehall in particular is full of 20th-century thinking, subsisting within 18th-century architecture. The state should instead promote disruptors, working with the shark-like efficiency of a Noughties tech “start-up” (a phrase Cummings is fond of and used to describe the entire Vote Leave campaign). There is a Hayekian foundation to this, and some of the anti-declinism of Thatcher, but Cummings is his own, achingly contemporary man. He is obsessed with data, IQ, evolutionary biology, and what we have no choice but to call “business management”. His heroes are logician Kurt Gödel, Intel CEO Andy Grove, Bismarck and, inevitably, Steve Jobs.
But, finally finding himself in Downing Street in 2019 with the power to apply this vision, Cummings is overwhelmed by crisis management — and, as portrayed by DOM, frustrated by an unserious prime minister. From here, the play dissolves into a series of cheap set-pieces, with all the dramatic force of an animated Private Eye cartoon: Boris buying gold wallpaper and adopting Dilyn, with Carrie wailing down the phone. Cummings is left to fulminate and then resign, and the play’s final canter through Partygate, Truss and the brief Boris comeback moment is mercifully short.
Much of what makes Cummings fascinating is on display here, though to me the portrait overstates his brutality and undersells his sheer weirdness (what other lowly spin doctor has ever self-published 133,000 words on his ideal of “an Odyssean education”?). And it swerves his expedient contrarianism. Cummings’s Covid-hawkery, for example, seems as much a roundabout way of smashing “the trolley” as an expression of pure principle.
But, beyond its broad satire, the tragedy of this play is that it exists at all. Exiled from power, Cummings seems adrift, firing furious, erudite missives into the cybersphere. Rather than applying his self-evident powers of intellect and invention to government, like his predecessors Cummings has been condemned to the impotency of a stock political joke.
He never wanted to succeed. He was always going to be foiled by people too stupid / lazy / stuck in the past / technophobe etc, and he could then storm off to his blog to fulminate about the Blob. He had no sense of using power and influence to shift society and the state in the right direction over the long term. It was all bullying people, shouting, and dashboards updating in real time. Things which couldn’t be readily observed and measured in real time – marriage rates, house affordability, loneliness, happiness, productivity, knowledge – were downplayed, notwithstanding their importance. Also a monumental ego who took all the credit for the results of the North East Assembly and Brexit referenda, and the 2019 election, which would have happened without him.
We could see this play as a sort of Remainer fairy-tale. It reduces their nemesis to something they can manage, emotionally. Far from being the Blofeld-like persona who robbed them of the result the Remainers thought they deserved, the play seems to present him as a joke (albeit in very poor taste).
The Guardian readers on Upper St got the biggest laughs from me. This England did a better Blofeld take, which I found equally amusing. The depiction of Johnson in the play was the poorest in taste, possibly because the farce was closer to the truth.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe