The theatrical seductiveness of sheer, malign energy was nowhere better illustrated in the drama of the Eighties than by Lambert Le Roux. He's the insatiable South African media tycoon who - with strong shades of Rupert Murdoch - manoeuvres himself into a position to own an upmarket English broadsheet in Pravda, the 1985 Fleet Street satire by Howard Brenton and David Hare. This mesmerising Richard III-like monster, who thinks that the only moral criterion is success, is stalking the stage again in Jonathan Church's vigorously entertaining production at Chichester.
A would-be cross between The Front Page and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, the Hare-Brenton satire was hot off the press at the height of the Thatcher era. Does it re-emerge now as a period piece or as a prescient diagnosis of newspaper trends? Well, in this revival, Pravda comes over as a bit of both.
Some predictions that seemed faintly far-fetched in 1985 have proved all-too-accurate. Le Roux believes he can buy the nationality of any country while owing allegiance to none: Murdoch went on to seek American citizenship to widen his media empire. What the play has to say about the dangers of self-censorship in journalism and the pressure to reveal sources feels every bit as relevant in the light of the Andrew Gilligan affair. It shows how the expansion of a proprietor's global interests can result in the strategic shrinkage of foreign reporting. Dumbing-down and glamming-up are seen to be part of the same process - tabloid tat and celebrity columns having a similar effect of keeping the public less nourished by the lifeblood of hard news.
What comes through strongly here, though, is that the authors despise journalists far more heartily than they lament the fact of Le Roux. This prejudice produced some misty patches on their crystal ball. In their knockabout depiction of the supine liberal establishment (presented in tiresomely crude, silly-named caricatures) and of the ineffective and compromised campaign against Le Roux waged by vengeful employees, they obviously regard it as inconceivable that certain journalists might one day mount principled, competitive opposition. They do not foresee, say, the founding of The Independent (in 1986), a paper to which Murdoch's response was a vicious price-cutting war, funded by other parts of his empire. At the risk of sounding vicariously virtuous, I'd note that there could be no room in Pravda for a journalist like Robert Fisk, who renounced the Murdoch shilling and is the very antithesis of what is meant by "embedded".
It's their fascinating ambivalence towards Le Roux that gives this Hare-Brenton collaboration a largely undiminished theatrical ebullience. They are drawn to the character because he's the scourge of the hacks they loathe. "You are all weak because you do not know what you believe," he tells his opponents, and the authors half-admire his conviction as a kind of inverted version of towering idealism. Playing the role, Roger Allam never puts the fear of God in you, as the hypnotically reptilian Anthony Hopkins did in the original production, but he's a formidable presence and captures well the tantalising shifts in Le Roux between taunting, shameless transparency and the mysterious opacity of the lonely mogul.
Next door in the Minerva Studio, there's another powerhouse performance on view. Jasper Britton brings a brilliant, manic, blackly funny edge to the part of the Captain, the military martinet whose wife makes him doubt the paternity of his daughter and his own sanity in Strindberg's compulsively watchable battle of the sexes, The Father.
It's a pity that, in Andrew Jackson's otherwise finely judged production, the forces aren't more evenly matched. Teresa Banham's portrayal of the wife lacks the insidious, manipulative power that's needed. But Mike Poulton's version highlights the Swedish dramatist's brand of anarchic gallows humour (at one point the Captain disses Ghosts as "rubbish by that female apologist, Ibsen"). Strindberg would have welcomed DNA-testing, but one shudders to think what he'd have made of fertility procedures that can now cut out men completely.
'Pravda' to 23 September and 'The Father' to 30 September (01243 781312)Reuse content