Clearly nobody from a rival outfit has been hacking the phones of dramatist Richard Bean and the National Theatre’s artistic director Nicholas Hytner or they wouldn’t have been able to spring this bracing surprise on us.
Last Tuesday, former News of the World editor Andy Coulson was convicted of conspiracy to hack phones. The next morning at a hastily convened press conference, the NT announced Great Britain, a satire by Bean about the cosy, corrupting relationship between sections of the press, the police and the political establishment.
The theatrical world is as prone to tight-lipped secrecy as a Trappist monastery to uncontrollable gossip so it’s a real wonder that the NT has been able to keep this project – which has been in rehearsals for months – under wraps.
Does it live up to its unusual occasion? By and large, yes. This is laughter-making on an industrial scale (to adapt a phrase) and it’s a farce with fangs. The play puts the whole incestuous culture back in the dock and subjects it to merciless ridicule. Billie Piper is excellent as Paige Britain, the ambitious news editor of a red-top called The Free Press who learns about phone-hacking by an innocent informant. Pretty soon, she is blackmailing her way into positions of influence with the Met Police and with the leader of the Tory Party.
Mischievously, the play parodies the charitable view of Rebekah Brooks, recently acquitted of all charges, in the shape of the woman to whom she loses the top job – a New York import who is far too busy with her own campaigns to have any knowledge of what else is going on on her watch.
Directed with terrific niftiness by Nicholas Hytner, the play weaves between politically incorrect humour and something darker and more troubling as it raised awkward questions about the divisions between honourable and disgusting journalistic muck-raking.
It suggests that, while a great many of our institutions may be found wanting at the moment, the NT is on exhilarating and exemplary form.