LONDON — You have only to make your way to a seat in the Lyttleton Theatre in London to discover the depths of compassion you could muster for George Clooney.
No, Clooney is nowhere to be seen, or even mentioned, in “Great Britain,” Richard Bean’s hot-off-the-presses satire about a British tabloid engaged in fabrication, privacy invasion and intimidation so vile that the paper ends up hounding a grieving and wholly innocent young father to death.
Based not-so-loosely on the phone-hacking scandals that sealed the doom of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World — and led to an 18-month prison sentence this month for one of its editors — “Great Britain” is the kind of evening that might have Clooney on his feet and cheering. It lambastes exactly the sort of dastardly newspaper behavior the actor excoriated this week, in a letter to USA Today regarding “dangerous” stories he says London’s Daily Mail made up about his forthcoming marriage to Amal Alamuddin.
That “Great Britain” is selling out performances at the National Theatre, Britain’s premier theater company, may attest less to the play’s merits — though intermittently funny, it’s rambling and obvious — than to a fascination with the subject. With their national profiles and unabashed political favoritism, British papers seem to forge more elemental connections with their readers than do their American counterparts. Britain is a country, after all, in which the major television channels offer nightly talk shows devoted to previewing the front pages of the next morning’s newspapers.
The play, which opened immediately after the conclusion of the phone-hacking prosecution, chronicles the misadventures of the fictitious Free Press, where an editor played by Billie Piper — and named Paige Britain — buys, for 200 quid, universal access codes that allow her and her reporters to listen to the voice mail of everyone from celebrities to terminally ill patients, all of whom have the kind of salacious and tragic stories that sell heaps of papers. Egged on by a loutish editor-in-chief (Robert Glenister) and a leering press baron (Dermot Crowley), Paige gins up a campaign, with some complicit police officers, to arrest a father of missing twin girls (Wallace Gee) for their murder. The ghastly nature of her error is revealed when another man is charged, but not before Paige’s “suspect” kills himself.
“Great Britain” portrays the Free Press’s editors as detached from any sort of recognizable sense of morality. Their only talent is for finding and exploiting what revolts their readers — the list is led, apparently, by pedophiles and immigrants — and then concocting stories that might magnify the public’s outrage, as it stews over its morning coffee (or lager).
The problem with “Great Britain” is that it really isn’t telling us anything about the tabloids that hasn’t long been apparent — and it continues to harp on the issue, for nearly three hours. In a way, the news of Clooney’s complaint reinforces the difficulty with “Great Britain,” that it’s a play crusading against a devil that we already know, all too well.
“The Daily Mail, more than any other organization that calls itself news, has proved time and time again that facts make no difference in the articles they make up,” Clooney wrote in his USA Today piece. He was most taken aback by the paper’s assertion that his engagement stirred resentment in Lebanon’s Druze religious community, of which the paper said Alamuddin’s mother was a member. (Clooney wrote that his future mother-in-law is, in fact, not a Druze.) With the story, he added, “they cross far beyond just a laughable tabloid and into the arena of inciting violence.”
That the Mail’s Web site, Mail Online, took the story down and issued an apology to Clooney did show a bit more decency than do the shameless practitioners of journalism in “Great Britain.” Ultimately, though, dramatist Bean and director Nicholas Hytner have broader targets for their scorn. In a bit of sermonizing at the end of the evening, Paige sneeringly reminds the audience who pays for all the mud that’s slung. And of course we knew this already, too. The enemy, it seems, is us.