For films of yore that were based on recent events, the posters would scream RIPPED FROM TODAY'S HEADLINES, that phrase came to mind often when I watched the National Theatre's controversial new production, GREAT BRITAIN by Richard Bean.
The play and the production have been kept under wraps for some time - director Nicholas Hytner was talking about it a year ago, saying he wasn't sure when Bean would complete it. Lo and behold, the phone-hacking trial ends and the play is delivered. The urge to address every single issue raised by the phone-hacking scandal has been followed by Bean and at times it felt like he had a huge flow-chart on his wall which he duly ticked-off as every note was touched on. I wish that Bean, rather than being so chapter-and-verse, had put more imagination into the piece.
Before the play started something had already irked me... no bloody programme! The absurd reason was that because it was put on at such speed no time was available to print one up but when it transfers to the Haymarket in September, they will be on sale there - and they also will try to get some for the NT bookshop when it re-opens. Gee thanks. I have seen visiting productions at the NT that have played shorter periods of time and they had programmes printed so why not this one? They knew who the cast and crew were going to be, they had the rehearsal photographs and all NT programmes are a third-full of paid ads that are the same for whatever production is on that month. I tell you, the place is going to the bad now they have builders in.
But the play's the thing... Paige Britain (no, it's not the subtlest of plays) is an ambitious news editor on the red-top rag The Free Press who will stoop to any level to get a scoop which fits the remit for the newspaper: Tits, Bingo and The Death Penalty For Paedos. No matter how unreliable the story it gets printed because the news room's mission statement is "we go out and destroy other people's lives on your behalf".
At the play's start, the news room's jubilation at unveiling a possible kiddy-fiddling priest is mitigated by his suicide. But never mind, there is always another story... a topless model can be a figurehead for whatever crass campaign the paper is running, there's always a sportsman involved in a kiss-and-tell, a politician to be set up - and the breaking news of two little girls who vanish one afternoon gives them a peach of a story that they can exploit mercilessly.
Paige's tactics get an unexpected boost when the sports columnist reveals how he gets his scoops: by listening to the subject's mobile phone voicemails which is easily done as so few people change the factory-setting pin numbers for their account - and The Free Press has all the factory codes...
A story is printed of a star cricketer having an affair which is based on a phone message but unbeknownst to the hacks, the cricketer has gone to a solicitor about a possible invasion of privacy - how else could they have got the quotes? This thread of the plotline weaves through the following action as Paige gets bolder with her dealings with the police and politics. She starts sleeping with the Assistant Police Commissioner to get inside news on how the kidnapping case is progressing and also to promote him in the newspaper over his bumbling and PR disaster-area of a boss.
A quietly ambitious Tory leader is targeted by the Newspaper's Irish proprietor and is told that the newspaper will back him in the upcoming election for his guarantee that the proprietor's bid for a national TV channel will be waived through, needless to say the politician also becomes Paige's bed-partner.
Paige doesn't always get what she wants - the Proprietor ignores her when the paper's editor moves to become the new Prime Minister's PR man (ringing bells?) and promotes instead a horse-loving, wife of a soap-star from his NY office to the editorship so she can figurehead a campaign against child-abusers (sound familiar?) although she has no involvement in the actual office.
But the persistent solicitor cannot be ignored and soon Paige's empire of deceit begins to come increasingly under pressure from both internal and external pressures. How will our quick-thinking anti-heroine get out of this? Ah how indeed.
For all that is wrong with the play there is also a lot right with it too, namely in the savagely funny performances and every so often Bean drops the satire to reveal his anger at the use of people's lives for cheap copy and the heirachy of corruption that taints those in power - "20 people who talk to 20 people who talk to 20 people". However I thought it interesting that Bean played down the fact that without other journalists digging, the full extent of recent shenanigans would never have been made public.
Hytner directs the play with a whiplash energy, the action's ability to crack along helped immeasureably by Tim Hatley's design of sliding screens which give the play an almost filmic pace. Neil Austin's lighting is also a key component in the production's success as well as the video clips by 59 Productions which punctuate the action with crashing headlines commenting on the plot in particular the Dail Mail ones which always related it to illegal immigrants!
Oddly enough the play only seemed tentative in it's ending which was obviously tacked-on by Bean after the court case ended.
Billie Piper was excellent as Paige, a woman with pure newsprint running in her veins but for all her work, the character remained a cypher. A quick insight was given that she always felt left out "of the big party" which is a bit negligble and the fact that the men are only truly conquered by her having sex with them is too obvious.
She is surrounded by an excellent cast including Robert Glenister as the inventively foul-mouthed editor Winston Tikkel who makes a disasterous move into politics and Oliver Chris as the Assistant Police Commissioner who discovers a conscience too late.
Aaron Neil steals every scene he is in as the buffoonish Police Commissioner ("More black men than white men have been shot by the police on my watch - but I will rectify that") while there was good work by Kiruna Stamel as the crusading solicitor as well as from Harriet Thorpe, Andrew Woodall, Ross Boatman, William Chubb and Nick Sampson.
I must admit my mind occasionally wandered back to 1985 and David Hare & Howard Brenton's equally savage PRAVDA at the Olivier Theatre. It stays in the mind primarily for Anthony Hopkins now-legendary performance as the South African newspaper owner Lambert La Roux determined to blow apart the crumbling British press establishment as well as destroying the campaigning journalist seeking to expose him. What a different world that seems now in view of GREAT BRITAIN's exposure of current practices.