The National Theatre has responded instantly to the verdicts reached in the phone-hacking trial with a “fast and furious” satire about the press, politicians and police that opens on Monday.
Great Britain, starring Billie Piper as an ambitious tabloid editor, was announced at a hastily arranged press conference this morning and opens in five days.
The play was ready to stage at the Lyttelton Theatre on Monday, but the National’s lawyers advised that it should wait until the verdicts in the long-running hacking trial were reached.
Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson was found guilty of conspiracy to hack phones on Tuesday, while Rebekah Brooks, his predecessor, was cleared of all charges.
“We didn’t think the trial would last as long as it did,” National director Sir Nicholas said, adding: “We were being very careful. It’s fiction but we were advised it would be better not to open the play while the trial was in progress.”
Piper plays Paige Britain, the young editor of fictional tabloid The Free Press, although Sir Nicholas was at pains to stress the character was not a reference to Brooks. Rupert Vansittart will play the Prime Minister.
Sir Nicholas said: “There are parallels with current events but the play spreads its net very widely. It has an entire network of press, police and political establishment in its sights. It’s not particularly bothered by specific allegations against specific people.”
Writer Richard Bean, whose work includes One Man, Two Guvnors, said: “It’s a fictional piece. It’s a grotesque satire that draws on current events, but is in no way a docudrama.”
Bean admitted one plotline was inspired by the story of the tabloid hounding of Christopher Jefferies wrongfully suspected following the murder of Joanna Yeates. He subsequently won damages from eight newspapers.
“I can only write plays if I get angry about something,” Bean said, “and that whole case made me insanely angry.”
There will be no previews, with a select audience invited to several dress rehearsals, and the play will run until 23 August. Journalists and newspaper editors have sat in on rehearsals and were happy with the portrayal of the industry, Sir Nichoals said.
He continued: “Both of us have a gut sympathy for good, old fashioned tabloid journalism… For the tabloid journalists who find proper stories.”
“It’s a satire which has as its target, perversions of the idea of a free press, not of the free press itself. The free press is an ideal we share and wish to protect.”
Had the verdict in the trial been different, Bean said, the play would still have been “pretty much the same”.