Published on 1 Jul 2014

Why not everyone laughed at the NT’s hilarious new satire

When you go to the premiere of a play and the audience is more star-studded than the cast, there are two conclusions: you are either living near the end of an empire or through the rebirth of some Athenian style demos. Either way, the audience becomes part of the story.

Last night’s opening of Great Britain, by Richard Bean, at the National Theatre was quickly assembled: the play was only announced six days before, at the end of the hacking trial it satirises. Yet it drew in many famous actors, directors, journalists, lawyers and vicars – not a few of them actual victims of real-life phone hacking.

The play tells the story of Paige Brittan, social-climbing ruthless tabloid news editor, who destroys the Met Police chief, has sex with the prime minister, destroys a global media giant and a corrupts a senior civil servant.

The play is hilarious – on a scale ranging from knowing giggles, Sid James-style cackling to the “can’t breathe”-style uproar you only get in farces (Richard Bean, the author, is famous for adapting farces).

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In rehearsal: the National Theatre’s Great Britain

But here is the news. Certain people did not find it funny. There were some notable stony faces by the end: some influential people in theatre, satirical journalism, the law and press freedom did not find it funny at all.

And here is, I suspect, why. As a piece of theatre Great Britain is bleak: it paints a picture of an establishment in which everybody is either corrupt, incompetent or driven by ambition so far that they become the tools of the corrupt and incompetent.

The funniest character is the fictional Met Police chief, who combines “zero tolerance” with the ability to open press conferences with the words: “Transgender, ladies and gentlemen.” He is so useless he becomes, in the drama, the only character we can actually laugh with.

No lightness

For the rest, it’s the same bleak gang that brought us the expenses scandal, the banking crisis, hacking, the relentless demonisation of migrants, and numerous real-life perversions of justice.

There is no lightness. In a farce there would be Arlecchino – the skittish libertine who represents the masses and their ability to outwit and subvert the hierarchical society they rest are trapped in. But in Great Britain it is Billie Piper’s character Paige – superbly played – who fits this role. Only as well as jokes, she gives us a series of Brecht-style speeches about how crap the British elite is, and how hypocritical we all are for putting up with them.

And this is what I think might have been troubling the odd big figure in the crowd. A lot of people around politics and the media are worried that Leveson went too far; that the unrelentingly corrupt view of the media will legitimise attacks on genuine freedom of expression and investigative journalism. “This is the world according to Hacked Off,” said one person to me – and not somebody who is normally against Hacked Off.

In the back of some minds in the theatre world might have been a parallel thought: when the National staged David Hare’s The Power of Yes – a very bitter attack on banking – there was light and shade. Most of the voices quoted (including mine) came from people who’d asked the questions, objected, or piled in as the crisis unfolded to try and explain it and learn the lessons.

Great Britain provokes much more laughter but contains very little light and shade. It’s a middle finger raised not just in the direction of Wapping but of the Mail, the Guardian, the legal profession who’ve got rich from lawsuits, celebrities nursing their pride. The only people who get off lightly are the news channels, whose hapless presenting style is lightly spoofed but whose actual role in amplifying the rubbish in, and the behaviour of, tabloids is underplayed.

In short, like the political plays of Aristophanes, Richard Bean’s Great Britain will probably manage to make large parts of the establishment very effin’ annoyed.

‘Nothing will change’

But unlike in ancient Athens, the playwright does not suggest an outcome, or a course of action. It seems like he is speaking, instead, to a demos beyond the theatre – people who think they can’t afford it or don’t like queuing six-deep for overpriced gin and tonic. Such people already believe – indeed “know” – the official world is corrupt to its core. They get on cheerfully with their lives, allowing them to be brightened up by the occasional celebrity sidebar story on the Mail’s website. The deep subtext of the play is that “nothing will change because you are all in thrall to this”.

But we are not. In the British theatre world today there will be companies large and small, across the UK, getting or not getting Arts Council grants to produce theatre that is exciting, experimental, full of youth and a large amount of optimism. Theirs is the world beyond the sick society portrayed in Great Britain.

After I’d finished laughing, and wiped my eyes, and taken a Nurofen for my ribs, I had an dull feeling of regret about Great Britain: that in order to tell the truth about the world of the tabloid editors and their political friends, you have to trap a bunch of actors inside that reality for two hours, with no Arlecchino, no Columbine, no light at the end of the tunnel or saving human virtues.

At the end of a shift on a tabloid, or its TV equivalent, journalists often say, metaphorically: “I feel like I need a shower.” That’s clearly what some people felt once the lights went up last night.

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3 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    Paul,

    A great blog, long overdue. I cannot praise it or the play too highly.

    “…it paints a picture of an establishment in which everybody is either corrupt, incompetent or driven by ambition…” – which nails the tiny ghettoised world of deluded London to its own propaganda totem, apologists too.

    But the implication is wrong that it is only prominent people whose lives were ruined or smeared by establishment scum. The “stars” are merely the most obvious symptom of a rotten-to-the-core system.The real victims are many millions or so-called ordinary citizens who have been driven into poverty, unemployment and penury while being blamed for their enforced condition. The craven cowards and their media apologists who instigated this are the lowest of the low, and if we had an equitable set of laws many of them would be serving a long sentence in the slammer, preferably until they rot.

    In actual fact the Hillsborough families and the people of Liverpool showed how to deal with the establishment: Get in the face of those criminals and liars, be persistent (even though it takes years), keep your sense of honour and decency, and press it home at every opportunity. Cowards always run away when they are faced down.

    This is plainly one occasion when art has performed its main function: to disturb. In an era like this it is a much more important function than the pap of soap operas and muzak. We need more outrage, not the Soma of “public relations” (read: lies).

    Congratulations to everyone involved in the play. And to you for such a visceral, much-needed blog.

    Next time you might care to analyse and expose how editorial policies are arrived at, who are the responsible editors and what their policies are, press and broadcast media. We all know the “fairness doctrine” was abandoned years ago thanks to Murdoch and his fellow criminals. It’s time to explain in mainstream news what this REALLY means and what it has led to.

    Meanwhile, of course the establishment will do nothing or next to nothing if they are allowed to sit on their fat, thieving uncaring arses. Which is why everybody should give them a good kicking at every available opportunity.

  2. Philip says:

    I know & knew plenty of people within the establishment covered in the play who weren’t corrupt and tried to operate fairly & with integrity. Many people – even at the top levels – were honest & uncorrupt. But there is something rotten at the centre. If the Government is corrupt (not generally in a financial, but a power sense) and is part of a nexus of influence which involves parts of the media, business, and organs of the state, resignation would be the only option….expecting your reasons explaining why would be like a mouse squeaking in Oxford Street.
    That said – how do you get from where we are to somewhere better. Words are not enough. Even a play like this isn’t enough. Indeed, even a massively-expensive, public exercise like Leveson appears not to have been enough. It seems to me that the only way we can move forward is to get off our butts – either we set up a political party based on fairness, justice & utter independence from big money & big influence – or we join an existing one and work to change their policies. Though I despise virtually all the UKIP stands for, it has generated an enthusiasm, influence & new members precisely because it appears to attack the current consensus. Why can’t we do this on the left? Is this sheer idleness or an unwillingness to get sufficient like-minded people into the same tent, accepting that in the process we have to compromise to some extent?

  3. petely says:

    The problem with trying to be satircal today, is the depths of incompetence it has to deal with.
    If you have (generally) competent, qualified and credible leaders who occasionally do stupid things, or find themselves in unfortunate circumstances then it’s easy to satirise THOSE failings. People recognise the dissonance and laugh.

    That’s satire.

    However with todays (and ever since we stopped getting conviction politicians and substituted career – or convicTED politicians) bunch, their leadership skills are so poor, their beliefs so insubstantial and their personalities and traits so lacking that they are just not not suitable material. (Plus they are so inconsequential, nobody knows who any of them are.) They are SO BAD that to satirise them would be like satirising someone for their disabilites. Definitely distasteful and unfunny. It would be more like mockery than satire – and nobody would pay to watch that, since it would all be true.

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