Joe Penhall: Trust me, I'm a reporter

For his latest work, the playwright Joe Penhall entered the murky world of newspaper 'stings'. And he's survived to tell the tale
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The Independent Culture

People who hobnob in hotels with Mazher Mahmood, the News of the World's investigations editor and "fake Sheikh" extraordinaire, tend not to know that they have had the pleasure of his company until it's too late - by which time they have been filmed handing over cocaine (like London's Burning actor John Alford) or taped in indiscreet flow (like Sophie Wessex). In happy contrast to these dupes, the award-winning dramatist Joe Penhall decided to take the initiative, and parlayed his way into an authentic audience with Mahmood. He did so while researching his latest play, Dumb Show, a sparky black comedy in which a TV light-entertainment star is the victim of a sensationalist newspaper set-up.

People who hobnob in hotels with Mazher Mahmood, the News of the World's investigations editor and "fake Sheikh" extraordinaire, tend not to know that they have had the pleasure of his company until it's too late - by which time they have been filmed handing over cocaine (like London's Burning actor John Alford) or taped in indiscreet flow (like Sophie Wessex). In happy contrast to these dupes, the award-winning dramatist Joe Penhall decided to take the initiative, and parlayed his way into an authentic audience with Mahmood. He did so while researching his latest play, Dumb Show, a sparky black comedy in which a TV light-entertainment star is the victim of a sensationalist newspaper set-up.

"I just rang the News of the World and said I had a story for him," Penhall recalls over coffee at the Royal Court, where tonight Terry Johnson's production begins previews. "Then when I got to speak to him, I said: 'Actually, I'm a playwright and I'm fascinated by what you do. It's so inherently theatrical and very rich; I think that the tabloids have been vilified for too long and what I'd like to do is focus on the heroism and the risk and the skill involved.'" The man who is said to have had a £100,000 contract put on his life did some assiduous checking and then summoned Penhall to the Hilton. "My bodyguard has gold teeth," he helpfully added.

The dramatist's real aim, of course, was to try to discover what motivates journalists of this ilk with their morally dubious methods of entrapment (manufacturing crime instead of just reporting it) and their willingness to destroy lives for relatively mild misdemeanours. Unbeknown to Penhall, until it was pointed out to him at the end, their Hilton encounter was being covertly filmed by a digital camera hidden in Mahmood's computer case.

It's exactly 10 years since the epoch-making season of new writing at the Theatre Upstairs (which gave us Sarah Kane's incendiary Blasted) was launched by Penhall's first full-length play, Some Voices, a gritty, sensitive and bleakly humorous piece about a young schizophrenic man released from a mental institution into the urban madhouse of Shepherd's Bush. So there's a pleasing symmetry to the fact that, a decade on, Dumb Show is initiating the Court's main stage season downstairs. But how do these two bookend plays relate to each other? The five-star hotel suite that is the setting for the latest piece would seem to be a far cry from the grungy lodgings and west London streets of his maiden effort.

"It feels, in a sense, as if I've come almost full circle," says Penhall. " Some Voices dealt with real people with real dilemmas whom I cared passionately about and it kind of oozed 'dirty realism', and this play is about artificiality and banality, and in fact it's the first piece I've worked on with characters I don't particularly like, and that made it a very, very difficult play to write. But in a weird way it's doing the same thing. Some Voices examined the nature of compassion and what happens when the state leaves it up to the community to look after the vulnerable. And Dumb Show is about what happens in the absolute absence of compassion, where society is becoming a vacuum - a vacuum devoid of any real empathy and sympathy, where the only thing that's left is an utterly plasticised, platitudinous and prurient tabloid sentimentality."

There was a draft of the play, the author reveals, where "the reporter posed as an African prince and Barry [the stitched-up comic] made all sorts of terrible racial faux pas". Penhall wrote brilliantly about racism in his award-winning play Blue/Orange (2000), which hinged on the conundrum of why there seems to be more mental illness among London's African and Caribbean population than among any other grouping. Objective fact, or "ethnocentric" diagnosis by the white medical establishment?

One of the contentious areas in the field of entrapment is the alleged exploitation of racial stereotypes, but Penhall found that there was nothing he wanted to say about race in this context. If, though, the idea of exotic disguise had to bite the dust, the hacks in the final version are nevertheless shaped by his belief that sting-journalists are constitutionally stage-struck. Mahmood, he maintains, "loves all the dressing-up and learning lines and getting butterflies with the same passion as an actor". And such journos would have you believe that there are other ways in which they can feel a connection with showbiz. Suppose, say, that their informant is a producer who wants to "give a wake-up call" to a performer who has turned difficult or is on the skids. "It's cheaper to disgrace such a person than to fire him straight off, and it has the added advantage of attracting maximum attention to the show," explains Penhall. That's the unenviable fate of Barry, the "Mr Saturday Night" personality with the unravelling private life, in Dumb Show.

Penhall, who was briefly a reporter before making it as a dramatist, uses Barry's humiliating predicament to animate a host of issues - looking at how, say, the emotional exhibitionism of confessional culture is grotesquely complicit with the world of the vicious exposé and how it's breathtakingly hypocritical of the press to expect entertainers to be virtuous "role models", given the unedifying example they themselves set ("People read this spiteful, sneaky bullshit and they think it's OK to be spiteful, sneaky bullshitters"). And through an investigations editor who tells Barry that taking out an injunction would be a crime against free speech, he parodies a shyster's unprincipled recourse to principle and slippery use of the slippery-slope argument.

Having bagged the Evening Standard, Olivier, and Critics' Circle Best Play gongs for Blue/Orange, Penhall is now much in demand as a screenwriter. The Long Firm, his TV version of Jake Arnott's Sixties gangster saga, was shown this summer, and October sees the premiere of his movie adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel Enduring Love. But with the collapse of cherished projects such as the screen makeover of his 1997 play Love and Understanding, he's had to withstand some bruising encounters in the film industry, and he now reckons that these ordeals probably became the subconscious impetus for Dumb Show. There's a parallel with entrapment, he argues, in the way producers lull writers into a false sense of trust and then behave with utter ruthlessness. "The irony is that success made me wanted by people who shouldn't really have wanted me. I'd think: why don't they pick on the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels guy, or Irvine Welsh, who's probably up for the scrap? I'm the one who wrote Blue/Orange."

The "chilling expediency" of the emotion measured out by the journalists in the new play evidently derives, in part, from the behaviour of the movie people who were all hand-holding concern when Penhall's father was dying of cancer and "turned round sixth months later and started getting seriously legal on me when I wouldn't comply with their mindless rewrites. I'm usually fascinated by how normal, decent and humane people cope with a system that's inherently flawed and inoperable. Latterly, though, I've become fascinated by people who operate successfully with none of those qualities - people who have so little imagination that they can't begin to comprehend the pain that they are putting somebody through."

He's keen to get away from the cliché of the cynical, self-hating hack. What is scary and interesting about the deadliest sting-journalists, he believes, is their unshakeable conviction that what they do is right.

'Dumb Show' is at the Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (020-7565 5000) to 9 October

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