‘Great Britain’ at the National Theatre
Wow! It’s not difficult to see why the lawyers did not want this play performed, or even announced, while the phone hacking trial was going on. It’s a satire, but like all the best satires, it’s sufficiently well grounded in reality to hit home and to avoid descending into farce. Of course the characters are caricatures, but at times it’s scary how ludicrous it can get without becoming detached from reality. Hacking into the voicemails of abducted children, tabloid editors in bed with the police and politicians, press campaigns leading to the hounding of innocent people, police shooting an unarmed black man, journalists searching through the bins of celebrities and paying civil servants for confidential information, politicians desperate for media endorsement and conspiring to keep their own indiscretions hidden, police deliberately ignoring evidence of widespread criminality, media owners cynically controlling politicians to further their own financial interests… all of this ought to be farcical, but at times seems little more than documentary.
Richard Bean’s play has masses of energy and the cast bring some real verve to it. Billie Piper romps through the play, as tabloid editor Paige Britain, delivering monologues of breath-taking cynicism to the audience, as she manipulates everyone from her closest colleagues to the police and the Prime Minister. It’s clear from the start that it’s going to be an uncomfortable ride, as she forestalls any hint of smugness from Guardian-reading liberals, and she’s back at the end to make us all feel at least partly complicit in what went on.
She has some great lines, but certainly no monopoly on them, and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Aaron Neil does a great comic turn as the witless Police Commissioner, which he plays absolutely straight-faced. A personal favourite was his mangling of the already mangled Donald Rumsfeld quote on known unknowns, and the way some of his lines were given the Nick Clegg treatment in Youtube-style videos on giant screens seemed almost ground-breaking. I’ve seen several plays before that have used screens and audio-visual elements, but nothing before that harnessed new technology and integrated it into the live action so effectively. It’s also quite impressive that a serious role is given to an actress with dwarfism, although they can’t resist using it for some deliciously politically incorrect jokes.
Maybe some of the targets were a bit too easy, maybe even there were too many disparate targets for any serious analysis of the reforms needed, but overall it felt to me like a triumph, and certainly a gloriously enjoyable afternoon in the theatre.