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You Couldn’t Make it up – Scottish Review of Books
by Joseph Farrell

You Couldn’t Make it up

June 8, 2012 | by Joseph Farrell

A conventional work of theatre begins, if it is really old-fashioned, when the curtain goes up or, in a more avant-garde piece, when the actors dawdle on to the stage, but it is more difficult to establish exactly what point marks the opening of The Enquirer. It might be when the intending audience is escorted into a lift and a helpful usher announces ‘third floor’ and pushes a button. A maximum of thirteen people, who are required by regulation to weigh less than 1000 kilos, are left awkwardly facing each other, wondering if this is some kind of theatrical stunt which will see them propelled indefinitely upwards, as on the lift in the Powell and Pressburger film which took David Niven into the clouds.

There is no such celestial exit, so perhaps the show begins when the spectators emerge and walk past neatly bound newspapers, enter a large hall with strategically placed desks behind which are seated human beings with anxious expressions. There are hillocks of shredded paper against one wall, and more piles of newsprint scattered around, some of it in waste-paper baskets filled to overflowing with rejected pages. The audience shuffles in to be told to take any seat they can find but to be prepared to free it if an actor needs it. This will be a promenade performance, so the message is to stay nimble.

Or again, perhaps the real beginning is when a hooter blows and a radio voice rings out to announce the Today programme, seemingly an obligatory item on the agenda at the morning editorial meeting of any newspaper. The actors crowd around a table for discussion, concerned to see if they had chosen to prioritise the same subjects as their radio colleagues, and then to mockingly dissect the previous day’s headlines of their rivals in the press. The conclusion is that they had done it better in any case. The business of reporting requires a great deal of glancing over shoulders.

The actors are playing journalists, as if anyone failed to know, and the truth is that this show had begun in the weeks leading up to the first night, not with the rehearsals or information-gathering interviews, but with articles and previews appearing in the dailies and weeklies that readers buy in the shops, rather than in the fictional Enquirer on which the actor-journalists work. These constitute the real first act and did the job a playwright normally has to do in the opening scenes, updating the audience on what had been happening before they arrived and introducing them to the action that will unfold and the issues to be debated while they watch. These pieces also shaped critical expectations and smoothed the way for the reception of this show. Since real, live journalists had prepared the show and fictional journalists were the subject of it, no theatrical work in recent times has found access to the media easier. The number of column inches the play commanded is probably without equal, certainly since Peter Brook came to Glasgow with the Mahabharata in 1990.

Presumably because the producers assumed prior familiarity, no programme was available before the performance began. The problem is that frequently the work as it exists in the mind of the creators differs from the work as it finally emerges. This carefully orchestrated lead-in work caused people to expect a high level of discussion of ethical and technical problems of the modern press. These have been amply exposed in recent times by the Leveson enquiry, while other pressing issues could include the excesses of tabloid snooping where the private has become the public, the possibility of an independent Scotland being left with no media of its own, the cohabitation of political and media power, the arrival of the twittersphere, the fear that apparent dizzying internet choice might mask greater homogeneity of information sources and the coarsening of popular culture through the media. These subjects are there, but the dominant element is a series of personal dilemmas.

A sense of professional duty compels me to repeat for someone newly returned from Mars how the work was assembled. Three journalists – Ruth Wishart, Deborah Orr and Paul Flynn – were employed as worker bees, tasked with carrying out interviews with fellow hacks. They brought the pollen to the king bee, or to the drones, who set about converting the material into honey. Seemingly every word in the performance was spoken by some journalist somewhere in these islands, and is then delivered by the actors verbatim but, for the most part, unattributed. There is no fiction and none of the unifying vision which would be given by a writer. The structure is loose, organised around a day in a newspaper office, but with inserted interview scenes and monologues.

Director John Tiffany has, in other words, followed the same procedure as for the much praised Black Watch. ‘Director’ is not quite the exact term, since Tiffany is credited as ‘director & editor,’ with writer Andrew O’Hagan down as ‘co-editor.’ The production is an exercise in what used to be termed ‘director’s theatre,’ making the playwright with his or her creative imagination, personal vision or idiosyncratic insights redundant. This is a pity at a time when Scotland has more talented playwrights than ever before. I cannot help thinking that there is some form of romantic fallacy in imagining that excluding individual creativity in favour of recording and reproducing words straight from the horse’s mouth gives greater access to truth and authenticity, but this seems to be the thinking at the National Theatre of Scotland.

The actors do not play specific parts and here, since there is nothing that could be called character development, the costume designer, Janice Burgos, comes into her own. Even although they will play a multiplicity of parts, the dress of each actor indicates their main role as surely as did the lozenge outfit of a Harlequin. James Anthony Pearson is bedecked in pink jacket, maroon trousers, checked shirt with white collar, and is clear that he will be the up-to-the-minute, cool, cheeky, chappy who spouts stuff about the new technology representing ‘citizens’ journalism,’ while Billy Riddoch has apparently borrowed Andrew Neil’s red braces to convey the notion that he will stand no nonsense, and John Bett wanders around under a panama hat, with tartan scarf, mauve waistcoat and corduroy trousers indicating that here we have a more louche, laid-back character. All the acting is of the highest standard.

The question then is what do we learn about the newspaper industry in a period of travail and uncertainty? In reality, we learn much more about journalists, and little for their glory. We learn first that they are an unusually foul-mouthed lot, incapable for the most part of pronouncing one grammatical sentence without the use, or multi-use, of the shamanic word, ‘fuck.’ They are prone to bouts of bad temper and shouting, and are strangely incapable of giving memorable, colourful or incisive expression to the passion they so frequently feel. Talking of the goals of his profession, one journalist opined, ‘All we want is for people to pick up their papers and choke on their marmalade.’ He was dissatisfied with that formula, so clarified his thinking with the words, ‘all we want is people to pick up the paper and go – “fuck me!”’ Plainly the word ‘marmalade’ here has a profound, metaphorical charge, and the combination of elegance of expression and well pondered insight in the second sentence would have an Oscar Wilde sick with envy.

They are a sentimental group, prey to nostalgia, probably with a misplaced heart of gold, conscious of slipping personal and collective standards but willing to put up with a great deal. Like bankers, they complain about the low regard in which they are held by the public but, again like the bankers who featured in Daniel Jackson’s recent Marriage of Figaro at the Lyceum, while they feel hard done by and want to be loved, they lack much understanding of why that fall in public esteem has occurred. One character inveighs against Stephen Fry for greeting an audience with the standard ‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ but extending his words of welcome to take in ‘media scumbags.’ Another, more poignantly, asks: ‘how did we get here? How did we lose our fucking moral compass?’

They are fond of insider gossip. Great names, like that of Rebekah Brooks, turn up from time to time, with the significant revelation that she had organised a nightie party. Rupert Murdoch and Alistair Camp-bell are mentioned frequently. Murdoch has his defenders, but not Campbell. Murdoch retains the respect of his more obsequious courtiers, being praised by one for paying his round when he could have slipped off leaving the bill for others to attend to, and by others for his stance against the unions in the move to Wapping which reformed the publishing industry and so made the Independent possible.

Some of the words spoken indicate uneasy consciences, but the highlights of the evening, those with the most powerful dramatic and moral impact, are structured like traditional theatrical encounters. One such scene takes the form of a confrontation in an afternoon conference when one of the company kicks the traces and slams Alex Salmond for the cosy relation he sought with Rupert Murdoch. The other powerful encounters are separate slots when the day-in-the-office format is abandoned and actual, one-to-one interviews with a war correspondent and two editors are reproduced. The editors, Jack Irvine ex-editor of the Sun and other papers, and Roger Alton of the Times, must rue the day they agreed to be take part in the process. The words are their own, and rarely has anyone been more roundly ridiculed and condemned by their own speech. Ruth Wishart had done the original interview with Irvine and the meeting gives Billy Riddoch, who is excellent throughout the evening, the opportunity to provide a memorable portrait of Irvine as a complacent, smug prat of a man who self-satirises by his deprecating little smirks, by his delight in his own exceptionality and, devastatingly, by his bewilderment at the very idea that there could ever have been anything morally questionable about payments to policemen, social workers, ambulance drivers or servants at Balmoral.

The nonchalant arrogance of power hangs more evidently about John Bett’s depiction of Alton, who emerges as an unctuous, condescending individual who bumbles, rambles and flounders under Deborah Orr’s questioning. She probes him about Murdoch, new technology or illegal payments and reveals a man without capacity for self-questioning, brushing aside questions about the Guardian’s investigations of telephone hacking, or about the new technological challenges. He denies that there is any code that puts the private lives of editors off-limits even to the rivals who will splash the lives of politicians or, increasingly, of ordinary people over the front page. Bett makes no attempt to over-egg the pudding, since Alton had already slittered it all down his shirt.

The emotional and ethical peak is the testimony of the war-correspondent, Ros Wynne-Jones, who has reported on war and famine in many countries including Sudan and Kosovo. Presumably to give some theatrical edge to what was already overwhelmingly powerful material, she is somewhat curiously seated on a filing cabinet facing an interviewer crouched like an office Puck on another such cabinet. Played with beautifully measured, understated emotional force by Maureen Beattie, the reporter tells of the harrowing tragedies she had seen, and yes she does think her work had been worthwhile, but recalls her despair when, after seeing corpses of men, women and children slaughtered in an unreported massacre in Timor, she managed to get her report through only to be told that the paper was dedicating virtually the entire edition to the breaking news about Edward and Sophie. There is no way of knowing whether she would have fared better had she been filing her copy for the Enquirer, or what kind of paper it was, right or left, broadsheet or tabloid, and above all whether its standards would have been different.

Once it was an article of faith among journalists that they should report the news, not make it, but now they make it and there are special media columns of their doings. The rest of us have learned the arts, once needed only in dictatorships, of reading between the lines of reporting. At the end of the day, the paper is ‘put to bed,’ and the cast snuggle up, like characters in a Samuel Beckett play, under the shredded remains of newsprint, reminiscing fondly and looking forward fearfully. Maybe that is all there is to be done, but I left this show recalling the words of John Ruskin against Whistler, that the artist had thrown a pot of paint in the face of the public. Some of the paint makes striking images, but the whole never quite coheres into one unsettling critique or vision.


National Theatre of Scotland The Hub, Glasgow. Run Ended

From this Issue

Afgans in Oban

by Brian Morton

A Low, Dishonest Decade

by David Torrance

You Couldn’t Make it up

by Joseph Farrell

Shopping For Borges

by Stephen Phelan

Paradise Relived

by Harry McGrath

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