Review – Great Britain, National Theatre

Richard Bean’s Great Britain takes broad aim at the cosy relationship between journalists, politicians and the police through a transparently fictionalised account of recent scandals.

It’s surprisingly ineffective.

The phone hacking scandal, the collapse of the News of the World, media influence on politicians, police corruption and brutality – these are all fertile areas for drama. A play which offered insight into the motivations and behaviour of the key protagonists during this period would have been fascinating. Imagine what David Hare would have made of it. Imagine it in the hands of Alecky Blythe. Come to think of it, imagine it even in the hands of Armando Iannucci.

Instead what we get from Richard Bean is a kind of mystery play lacking in subtelty or insight. These protagonists are cartoonish in their villany or ambition or incompetence or sweariness or another defining characteristic – each character has only one. These characters have no arc: they start bad, they do some bad things, they end up bad and unrepentant. Watching some villains acting villainously is not as interesting as knowing how reasonable people came to find this sort of behaviour acceptable. What is lacking from this account of evil is any of its banality.

There’s a great cast on display here, albeit not put to their best use. Robert Glenister is wasted here as a Malcolm Tucker tribute act. Billie Piper – against all odds actually an excellent actress elsewhere – could be much better deployed than as a one dimensional Lady Macbeth in a pencil skirt. Aaron Neil as the incompetent police commissioner, given the trope of outright comedy, is the best value on stage.

As one might expect from the National Theatre the production values are solid. Lots of Lytteltonian interlocking screens swishing all over the place. However there are a few jarring inconsistencies that make you wonder whether the people involved in this play about the modern media know much about the modern media: 24 hour news channel tickers generally don’t tick “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet”; news broadcasts (at least since the 1980s) are not typically interrupted by runners bringing papers containing news hot off the press; lobby briefings don’t take place behind a podium.

These might seem like minor complaints but they go to my central issue with this play. If this were an entirely fictional narrative it would not have seen the light of day; it’s characters are not strong or interesting enough. This piece’s interest lies in its topicality – its first night was on the last day of the phone hacking trial – the power of which is entirely muted if its characters, its settings and its events do not seem plausible. This play defines its relevance with reference to real world events, but offers very little of interest in return.