Richard Bean’s new play, directed by Nicholas Hytner, opened at the Lyttleton Theatre on 30 June. It made rather a splash because the National Theatre, fearing contempt of court, had commissioned and rehearsed in secret, only announcing the first night after the conviction of Andy Coulson for phone-hacking. This reviewer was part of an audience watching seven days later, a few hours after Coulson had received an 18 month custodial sentence. If appearances are any guide they were in a mood to celebrate and Great Britain did not disappoint.
As Paige (sic) Britain, Billie Piper is News Editor and joyous celebrant of Murdoch values on a daily uncannily alike an amalgam of The Sun and The News of the World (RIP). During the course of the play she derives sensational stories from the bin bags of the famous, accuses an MP of fraud during a Select Committee hearing, masterminds the adoption of phone-hacking (a story source those in the know refer to as ‘Burton Latimer’), screws the Deputy Commissioner (later Commissioner) of the Met, the Leader of the Conservative Opposition (later prime minister) and (after the action ends) her proprietor. With a scoring record like that it is almost a disappointment to discover that she is not a thinly-disguised Rebekah Brooks, acquitted of the same charges the same day as Coulson was convicted.
The play underlines this non-identity by the installation as Editor of Virginia White, a Brooks lookalike, (Jo Dockery), a post the chagrined Britain believes should be hers. This device (a last-minute adjustment perhaps to reflect the contrasting fortunes of the two principal defendants at the trial?) still allows some gleeful punches to be landed: White, a protagonist of celeb journalism, really is ignorant of the source of the paper’s greatest stories, in ghostly echo of the successful – albeit eyebrow-raising – Brooks defence. Press, police and politicians all interact to promote each others’ interests. It is only when the paper unwittingly hacks the phone of murdered twin girls (a generous echo of the real events that eventually exposed Coulson) that its success unravels. One Commissioner resigns and his successor hangs himself, politicians are disgraced and the paper is closed down.
This is a fast, gleeful production, full of scabrous jokes, sometimes illuminated by fake front pages of The Daily Mail, The Guardian and the paper itself. There are some exceptionally funny one-liners, including the most hilarious ever culled from that unfailing source, the Authorised Version. Bean is inventive, and shows it in three male characters. As the hapless first Met Commissioner Aaron Neil is a virtuoso of the verbal infelicity, stumbling from one linguistic elephant trap to the next. In Wilson Tickel (editor as the action begins) the inspired Robert Glenister gives us Kelvin Mackenzie to the life –thuggish, ignorant and profane.
Most tellingly we have Dermot Crowley as Paschal O’Leary, an Irish proprietor with an Australian loathing of the British Establishment. In 1985, with News International riding high, the National Theatre gave us its last examination of the ‘British’ press in Howard Brenton and David Hare’s Pravda. As the South African proprietor, Lambert Le Roux, all-powerful, iconoclastic and right-wing, Anthony Hopkins compelled: he was an unstoppable recognisable force. In the transition from Le Roux to O’Leary we glimpse the decline of News International – at least in print – through personal decay. At the Select Committee hearing, O’Leary regrets the absence of biscuits with the immortal words ‘this is the hungriest day of my life’. Britain, always thinking ahead, worries about having to share a bed with his thinning hair and halitosis. O’Leary is powerful enough to corrupt prime ministers and shut the paper down but whereas Le Roux had an agenda, he is only interested in the money. Pravda was about Le Roux; Great Britain is about criminality among politicians, the police and the press. It felt more like ensemble playing than Pravda, and perhaps for that reason it hit its target from many angles, but there is a sense that the world has moved on. In Pravda a state-owned National Theatre bravely jeered at an all-conquering combination of politicians and the press. Great Britain felt more like the Last Rites.