This is surely the most detailed stage satire I have ever seen. It is not simply a diaphanously veiled retelling of the phone-hacking scandal that hit the British press and in particular the News of the World, laying bare the corrupt complicity of media, politics and police to the very highest levels; it is distinctly a cartoon version. Nevertheless, writer Richard Bean has ensured that virtually every pen-stroke closely caricatures a real-life character or event. The specificity is astounding; little wonder that, although the production was scheduled and rehearsed more or less as normal, the National Theatre chose not to announce its existence publicly until only a few days ago, once the verdicts from the hacking-related trials had come in.
This short notice meant that press night was also the first public performance, with a few consequent minor line-fluffs, entirely understandable among a cast of more than two dozen over nearly three hours. This is a big play, and Nicholas Hytner gives it one of his big productions, with huge video screens acting as stage “wipes” while showing mocked-up headlines and TV news clips, even supposed YouTube mash-ups of the hapless police commissioner (a rare character with no obvious biographical basis) and his repertoire of foot-in-mouthisms.
As the protagonist, news editor Paige Britain, Billie Piper is not in any way impersonating Rebekah Brooks; in fact, some visual and character traits of Brooks have been spun off into a second character who is then portrayed as hopelessly naïve, in contrast both to the figure Piper plays and the actual former News of the World and Sun editor. Robert Glenister enjoys every moment of his performance as, in effect, Brooks’s notorious predecessor Kelvin MacKenzie; in contrast, Dermot Crowley as the paper’s proprietor is less a simple analogue for Rupert Murdoch than a broth of several owners of UK papers and even former Irish Taoiseach Charles Haughey.
For this is both a specific dissection and a big-picture canvas. The fictional paper here is called the Free Press because it stands in many respects for the entire sector. And despite Bean’s masterly savage jokes, he pulls back in the final minutes for the necessarily explicit straight-out indictment of our own collective hypocrisy as a society with respect to both the hacking saga and other press abuses.
One of the hardest-hitting lines in the play, “That’s what we do – we go out and destroy other people’s lives”, is a direct quote from Britain’s real-life counterpart, NotW news editor Greg Miskiw. This is a much less elegant and subtle satire on the press than David Hare and Howard Brenton’s Pravda, which opened here 30-odd years ago; it is, however, more closely in tune with its subject matter and its times.