27 Jun 2014

NT farce that sheds light on the murky world of tabloids

An ambitious tabloid editor rises to the top, pulling the prime minister into a reputational dirtstorm and, in the process, laying the corruption and iniquity of the entire establishment bare. Richard Bean’s instant play, Great Britain, bears no resemblance to any characters, living or dead.

Paige Britain is not Rebekah Brookes. Her tabloid – the Free Press – is not the News of the World. And there are no country suppers. Beyond that, says director Nicholas Hytner, it’s set to tell a deeper truth.

“There are no country suppers, but the world of country suppers, the world of cosy relationships, that’s treated in the play. It is inspired by the playwright’s anger and disgust about a conspiracy at the top of our society between elements of the press, elements of the police, parts of the political establishment; a sense that the country was being run by 20 people who talk to another 20 people.”

Bean, the playwright (pictured above), is best known for One Man Two Guvnors, the hit west end adaptation of a Goldoni farce. Tabloid journalism, with its hypocrisy, endemic lying and tight deadlines, has been a perennial subject for farce – but in this case, says Hytner, it’s more like vicious satire.

“I hope mostly the audience will laugh – but I hope that absurdity becomes a weapon in their hands. It’s fuelled by anger at what a small conspiracy of people have been able to get away with – and though the play makes no specific allegations, I do hope the response is anger.”

The play has been rehearsed in secret and the cast were kept on hold for 10 days to avoid risking contempt of court. Hytner’s team have been advised throughout by legal counsel, and with the verdicts in, have rushed the production on to the Lyttleton’s massive stage – opening on the same day Andy Coulson is set to be sentenced.


When I visited the Lyttelton, preparing for its dress rehearsal tonight, Hytner (pictured above, left) was still busy scribbling script revisions. The cast – headed by Billie Piper (above, centre) who plays the tousle-tressed heroine – were locked in rehearsals.

Hytner tells me the basic outline of the play would have stayed the same whatever the verdict. But, he says, with an invited audience, the play is already 10 minutes longer due to the gales of laughter as characters protest their innocence.

Why, I ask Hytner, does theatre have to do what the press and the criminal justice system did not. “We make no pretence to be giving a factual account of what happened,” says Hytner. “But, also, I do hope what bothers people is what we’ve all become. It’s our fault if we have sloughed off the power and allowed it to be gathered up by the kind of people depicted in the play.”

Basically, as of Monday, the world of corrupt cops, criminal hacks and double-dealing politicians will get a re-trial, nightly, only this time in the court of public opinion. And if – as with all good farces – we leave the theatre laughing so hard we cannot breathe, then, as the playwright Nikolai Gogol once put it, we’ll be laughing at ourselves.

Great Britain, a new play by Richard Bean, directed by Nicholas Hytner, opens at the Lyttelton Theatre on Monday 30 June, playing until 23 August

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