Lesley Buildings, Belfast
There are many revealing things in this near-forensic investigation into the newspaper industry, but few as sobering or as wicked as a wall chart showing declining British circulation figures over a decade.
Most of the line graphs resemble ski slopes, heading inexorably downwards, but the red line illustration for the now-defunct News of the World stops abruptly and plunges off its page.
Prompted by a similar crash of events – the phone-hacking scandal, the Leveson Inquiry, the uncomfortable proximity between Rupert Murdoch’s empire and the British government, and the place of the fourth estate in an age of new media – this co-production from the National Theatre of Scotland and London Review of Books plumbs newspaper culture by addressing those who work at its typeface, assembling a verbatim text from interviews with 43 journalists. Most see the writing on the wall.
Co-directors Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany edit the material (with Andrew O’Hagan) with as much wariness of print media braggadocio as new citizen-journalism evangelists, equally reluctant to editorialise or moralise.
Although some practices are alarming – Billy Riddoch as a Scottish Sun editor speaking breezily about his “black book” of cash payoffs, or Maureen Beattie explaining how an East Timor massacre was pushed off the pages by a royal family spread – the play also engages with the relationship between newspapers and their readers.
All of this would be a very dry exercise without the vigour of the six performers, gently symbolic of successive generations of media, and a beautifully imaginative use of space.
Framed as a day in a newspaper office, the show leads the audience through a brisk and brusque promenade, where decisions, stories and ethics all fit within strict deadlines.
Reality becomes subtly distended, with coffee cups forming surreal stacks, or bundles of newspapers make towering installations, just as the hilariously presented dream of one features editor – about kicking Bryan Ferry to death – conveys a fear of PR machines more vividly than any column.
Like Black Watch, the NTS’s brilliant play about the Scottish regiment in Iraq, there is little sense here of distinct characters; even when playing real figures,
the otherwise excellent cast instead establish types: the cub reporter, the plummy executive editor, the anecdotal veteran.
That may increase the sense of a hurried inquiry, but even as the show emulates the frenetic pace of newspapers, it uses the capacities of the theatre to create a space for reflection.
The findings of Enquirer are sympathetic and elegiac – “I thought it would save paper,” one writer says of her first laptop, alive to the irony – but there is something almost threatening about how well it applies journalistic technique to theatre
Wasn’t Twitter bad enough?