Satire, Scandals and Scoops
Maureen Younger is in the audience this time and gets the lowdown on hacking scandal satire, Great Britain.
For a performer it sometimes makes a pleasant change to be in the audience for once. With that in mind I headed down to the Theatre Royal Haymarket to watch Great Britain, a satire – and a very funny one at that - on how elements within the UK press connived with the police and politicians to flout the law, trample all over numerous people’s lives and in the process unduly influence the political establishment, and all in the name of higher circulation figures.
Satire is often used as a kind of distorting mirror to reflect the iniquities of society and tends to stem from anger as well as a sense of powerlessness in the face of such evils and injustices. Its history can be traced back to antiquity via Swift and his “A Modest Proposal” - where he put forward a plan for the Irish poor to relieve their economic woes by selling their children to the rich for food - to its many exponents during the dying days of the Weimar Republic. And as Peter Cook noted “and look how it stopped Hitler!”
Consequently, the laughter probably wouldn’t stick in your throat so much if the satire on stage didn’t have a resounding ring of truth to it. Comedian and impressionist, Ronni Anconna was quoted once as saying that “satire is in danger of being strangled, because celebrity culture has become so extreme”. Likewise while watching Great Britain, you find yourself asking how much of a satire this play really is, given the abject reality of the recent phone hacking scandal.
In Great Britain the tabloid in question is called The Free Press, a neat touch, given the term was freely bounded about during the scandal to justify certain members of the press acting illegally and impinging on individual freedoms; while real journalistic stories, as the play makes clear, were constantly pushed aside in deference to celebrity news and sensationalist articles, preferably on immigrants and paedophiles. Great play is made of the hypocrisy of a newspaper which self-righteously hunts down a supposed paedophile, co-ordinates his arrest with the police so they can have the scoop over its competitors, yet is happy to promote underage naked flesh to its readers.
Originally staged at the National Theatre, this is apparent in the large ensemble cast, the fine ensemble acting and the deft direction. The set is clever without taking away from the action in front of it and around it, and the writing very funny indeed. The writer, Richard Bean, apparently did stand up and this is evident in some of the corker one liners that his cast have the good fortune to say. The standout comedy performance for me however was Aaron Neil as the hapless Commissioner Sully Kassam. He has some great lines and his delivery of them is pitch-perfect. Like Roger Lloyd Pack as Trigger in Only Fools and Horses, Aaron Neil is totally adept at playing the unknowing idiot, as he constantly stares out like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car or in his case, most probably a tank. It’s worth seeing the play for Aaron Neil’s performance alone!
Given the subject matter, the play has an up-to-date feel to it. It’s also very British in its terms of reference, and as a result some of these may not register with the average non-Brit theatregoer. However the questions the play raises are by no means parochial. 40 years earlier the German writer Heinrich Böll in his novel The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum laid bare how the West German police connived with a certain media outlet to run roughshod over the rights and reputations of individuals. As with this novel, Great Britain could just as well come with a disclaimer similar to his: “All characters and events are fictitious. Any resemblance to certain journalistic practices are neither intended, nor coincidental but unavoidable.”
Great Britain is on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, until 10th January (www.trh.co.uk).