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).


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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