British theatre very rarely takes political drama seriously. Most of the political drama featured on our stages takes a decided bent towards the satirical and the farcical. The only real way for our dramatists to decry the corrupt and the incompetent in the British public sector, it seems, is to render them laughably ridiculous, and Great Britain, currently showing at the National Theatre, is no exception. The National Theatre is, after all, known for the development of these satirical works – over the last forty years, the bill has included works like The National Health, Pravda, and This House.
The announcement of Great Britain – written by Richard Bean, author of the National Theatre’s smash hit One Man, Two Guvnors – about two weeks ago came as a bit of a shock to both the theatre world and the public. Having been cast and rehearsed in complete secret since before Easter, the play focuses on the rise and fall of a tabloid newspaper, and decries – amongst a vast range of transgressions –Page Three, phone hacking, police corruption, and political skulduggery. Almost every sphere of public life is examined and found wanting.
The need for secrecy during production and development is clear – the announcement came as Andy Coulson’s trial for phone hacking, and by extension, the Leveson Inquiry, drew to a close. Had the play been publicised before the end of the legal process, its creators might well have been indicted for contempt of court. As it is, the timing of the play makes it so topical as to inevitably render it a box-office success. The astute references to the current cultural and political climate make it irresistibly entertaining to an audience of intelligentsia who like to consider themselves in the know. Multimedia meme-style videos of the Police Commissioner’s public apologies and attempts at redemption recall the autotuned Nick Clegg “Apology Song”. The horsey senior editor who has no idea what is actually going on in her offices is a clear stab at Rebekah Brooks, ex-editor of the now-defunct News of the World. The editor-turned media guru to the Prime Minister mirrors David Cameron’s disastrous misstep of appointing Coulson to the very same position.
These references are funny, but I can’t help but feel that the play overall is lazy. It is only too easy to cruise along on the ludicrousness of actual events, without offering any insight or solution to the ensuing chaos. Billie Piper – of Doctor Who and Secret Diary of a Call-Girl fame – is surprisingly unengaging to watch, despite being billed as the star of the show. It could just be that her character – the ruthlessly ambitious and uncompromising sub-editor who will do anything to catch a story – is so relentlessly unlikeable, but Piper herself does little to make the character multi-faceted, instead playing her on one villainous note. Perhaps my personal dislike for asides has coloured my enjoyment of the script – but it takes far more skill and is ultimately more engaging for a playwright to gradually reveal motivations and relationships through dialogue rather than mounting them as occasional explain-all monologues directed at the audience.
The design is glossy and flexible, with sliding glass partitions which reveal variously the police commissioner’s home, the newspaper offices and even the Ivy restaurant. The use of multimedia and projection is one of the play’s strongest points, and parodies of national newspapers (“The Guardener” which carries the subtitle ‘We think so you don’t have to’, and “The Mail”, which only ever features headlines about immigrants) are one of the main sources of laughter. Supporting cast members – such as Oliver Chris, as the Vice-Commissioner who compromises his own moral code so severely that he feels obliged to bring himself to a sticky end – give excellent performances, and the overall feel of the play is high-powered and glossy.
The National Theatre’s choice to commission a play about the corruption of the press is an interesting one. Pravda, written by David Hare and Howard Brenton, focuses on a similar topic, although its specific subject matter is a thinly-veiled parody of Rupert Murdoch’s ascension to power over Fleet Street, whereas Great Britain’s Murdoch-figure has already made it in the newspaper business, and is now aiming at an approximation of the BskyB bid. Personally I think that Hare’s version is more witty and more skilfully constructed, however, whilst Pravda was hugely successful during the immediate aftermath of Murdoch’s rise, it is now largely obsolete as a political play, because times have moved on. Though Great Britain is entertaining now, its power to amuse is rooted firmly in the present.
Watch Great Britain like you might read Private Eye – as an immediately amusing construction rather than as a lasting masterpiece of writing.