It is nearly thirty years now since the National premiered Pravda, a satire co-written by David Hare and Howard Brenton about the wholesale annexation of a British newspaper by a foreign media mogul (in this case South African, but clearly modelled on Rupert Murdoch), and how its liberal young editor is duly compromised. The play won the 1986 Olivier for Best New Play, and last received a major revival at Chichester in 2006. It also proved intriguingly prescient: the play suggests an entrepreneur would change citizenship to buy more media -- which Murdoch duly did, becoming an American citizen to make acquisitions there. As Hare subsequently told one interviewer, "Murdoch is the only person who could asset-strip a satire."
Now the heavy weight of Murdoch on both the media and politics in general has been revealed in all its gory detail in the criminal courts, as several of his senior executives and former editor have stood trial on charges that have included conspiracy to intercept communications (the now infamous phone hacking of everyone from celebrities to a schoolgirl who was subsequently found to have been murdered). Rebekah Brooks, former head of Murdoch's UK newspaper operation, was cleared last week of all charges; but Andy Coulson, former editor of one of its titles, the now defunct News of the World, was found guilty.
In a theatrical masterstroke, the National Theatre were secretly poised and ready the moment the verdicts came in to announce a play directly inspired by that trial to open just five days later. (Sentencing is still to take place for those found guilty, but meanwhile an unforgiving spotlight is being shone here on the sort of behaviour that led to this outcome).
You have to applaud the nerve and resolve of the National to do battle with such a live issue; they had to await the verdicts before they could open the play to avoid being in contempt of court. And given the extreme duration of the trail -- the longest in modern British legal history -- the play could have stayed in rehearsal for a lot longer.
But though the result is slickly staged and theatrically accomplished, I'm not sure whether its scattergun approach to its multiple targets really works, as it gives us an insiders' view of the newsroom of a popular red top tabloid, here dubbed the Free Press. It is presided over by Irish proprietor Paschal O'Leary (Dermot Crowley) and editor Wilson Tickell (Robert Glenister) who becomes (of course) the Prime Minister's head of communications. But the main focus is on the paper's news editor Paige Britain (superbly played by Billie Piper), on an ambitious mission all of her own. Meanwhile, newspaper executive Virginia White (Jo Dockery), imported from New YOrk, exerts a more arms-length influence from her office upstairs; when the police finally raid the paper, she exclaims, "What have we done?" It's not difficult to work out who she is meant to be.
There's a lot to enjoy and relish in such exchanges and the headlines that appear from other papers on video screens provide joy all of their own, especially the Daily Wail [sic] and it's obsession with immigrants. (These were for me the funniest gags of the evening).
It's great to see the theatre, and especially the National, grappling with issues of major public concern like this in such a lively and spirited way, but newspapers have in fact been providing their own even richer commentary on these events -- and there's been no disguises necessary. They've simply been telling it as it is, which the grubby staff here absolutely don't. It's chastening and entertaining enough to watch, but there are no fresh insights.
"Directed with terrific niftiness by Nicholas Hytner, the play weaves between politically incorrect humour and something darker and more troubling as it raised awkward questions about the divisions between honourable and disgusting journalistic muck-raking. It suggests that, while a great many of our institutions may be found wanting at the moment, the NT is on exhilarating and exemplary form."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Maybe it's too much to expect Bean to map out a path for the future. But what he has done is to remind us of the sins of the powerful and put an array of scandals on to the National Theatre stage. I mean it as a compliment when I say his play has a tabloid energy and bravura."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Some terrific acting work across the board and slick direction from Nicholas Hytner keep it motoring along. It’s only in the darker second half, though, when despite Bean’s constant heavy-handed editorialising, the parallel real-life tragedies lurking behind the cartoon knock-about make themselves felt, that the show stops looking like a bold, topical summer filler, and becomes required, conscience-pricking viewing."
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph
"The Royal National Theatre’s quick-response play about the hacking scandal is less anti-Press than one might have expected. It is more ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’ than ‘J’accuse’. The heaviness of the humour obscures much of the seriousness."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Bean’s satire is deliberately grotesque. The cartoonish elements are richly enjoyable, laced with political incorrectness, yet they’re interleaved with some altogether more subtle jokes. Even if the show feels a little too broad and could do with a trim, it’s barbed, dense and very funny."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard