By Howard Brenton and David Hare
Directed by Jonathan Church
Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre
Date: Thursday 21st September 2006
We saw this play back in the eighties, at the National, with Anthony Hopkins. I found I couldn’t remember much of it, except for Hopkins’ performance, so I came to this production as a virgin, almost. I found the play dated in parts and with a lack of depth to the characters, but still with some very interesting points to make about power and the abuse of it. There are still a lot of ideas coming to the surface.
The set was very stark. White panels at the back, a wide, raised platform for most of the action in the centre, with some snippets at the front and sides. The floor was covered in reverse print, suggestive of the old printing press, which partly lapped up onto the back panels. The two lower panels slid apart to create doors, slightly wider or narrower as required – simple but effective. A great deal of furniture came on and off during the play, but this was cleverly covered by business at the front of the stage, e.g. newspaper vendors selling their wares and giving us useful headlines to carry the action forward. There were also media interviews of various characters. These two writers know how to put something on the stage; I’ll say that for them.
I enjoyed all of the performances, and only had one difficulty – there’s a scene with four characters speaking with contrasting accents, South African, Australian, Yorkshire, and RP. Maybe it was the weird combination, but I found this hard to follow. Some of the accents seemed to be wandering around the globe a bit, and weren’t immediately recognisable, although this scene was the only one that gave me any real problem.
The play is about the takeover of the British media in the eighties by, mainly, Rupert Murdoch. Represented here by Lambert Le Roux, a South African, he bullies his way to the top, discarding the husks of people he’s used along the way. Those who try to fight back are ruthlessly trampled underfoot, until all come under his sway. Only those who walk away can survive with souls intact, although that’s not as clearly stated as one might wish. It was a tremendous performance by Roger Allam in the lead role. Like Anthony Hopkins, he had the strong physical posture – wide stance, very upright, moving from the shoulders like a bull looking for a china shop. I was convinced by his power and ruthlessness, though not so sure that he could be physically violent when need be. Still, it was a great performance, and fortunately, given that this is a play about a strong, dominating character, the other performances were on a par. The whole production has a balanced feel to it, and there were some lovely cameos for minor characters, such as the political correspondent, whose job was to explain the parliamentary lobby system to us innocents.
It’s interesting to compare our attitudes then and now. I remembered on the journey home how much the British media had been in thrall to Murdoch when he first started mauling his competition. The BBC, in particular, struck me as very wimpish in not standing up to his criticism and fighting their corner. He was a shark swimming into waters that had never seen anything bigger than a herring and he killed at will, but now everyone’s toughened up and shark is the norm.
This play has stood the test of time, and is a good record of the attitudes then, and a warning of how things can change. As Lambert says, “You never used your editorial freedom when you had the chance.” The price of freedom is indeed eternal vigilance, and plays like this help.
© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me