Only a day or so after the verdicts in the phone hacking trial are delivered, the National Theatre has announced a new play, GREAT BRITAIN, written by accomplished playwright Richard Bean and described as a "grotesque satire" about the tabloid press. The lead character, played by Billie Piper, is the editor of The Free Press, a mass-circulation paper seeking an even bigger readership. Director Nicholas Hytner is at pains to say that this character is in no way based upon Rebekah Brooks. So any similarity between the fictional Paige Britain and any other person living or dead (as the legal disclaimer usually goes) is purely coincidental; what on earth could you have been thinking?
But Nick, why so coy? After all, the character of Paige Britain is not Rebekah Wade in the same way that George Jones in THE ABSENCE OF WAR clearly wasn't Neil Kinnock, Lambert La Roux in PRAVDA wasn't Rupert Murdoch and Brecht's THE RESISTABLE RISE OF ARTURO UI was self-evidently a play about the Cauliflower Trust set in the little town of Cicero and not about Hitler's deadly rise at all.
But Hytner's denial perhaps represents a more complex literal truth. All those characters were inventions of the writers, reflecting certain facts about their analogues in real life but on the stage they became characters in their own right, whatever their original influences, living and breathing in the minds of the audience with their own needs, wants, objectives and motivations.
Writers often say that their characters seem to take on a life of their own, and perhaps that's not too surprising. When we think about people we know, we summon up an imaginative model of their characteristics and can run simulations to predict their likely reactions in any given circumstance. And once a character has taken form in a writer's mind, a similar process arguably occurs. So Lambert La Roux is inspired by Rupert Murdoch (becoming South African not Australian in the process) and Paige Britain will surely derive traits from Ms Wade but I'm sure without the budget needing to stretch to a magnificent flamed haired wig (sorry, Billie). And so in those plays the characters can adapt to the fictionalised circumstances the writers place them. This allows the playwright freedom to explore those situations and allows the satire through in a more subtle way.
In our own debut play COALITION - presented at the Edinburgh fringe in 2012 - the lead character was called Matt Cooper. This was a character clearly inspired by the suffocating political travails in which Nick Clegg found himself, but creating a new character gave us the freedom to explore ficitionalised situations and allowed our leading actor (Thom Tuck) room to develop a living, breathing character that might respond in a Clegg-like way, without resorting to parody.
In our new play KINGMAKER, also set for Edinburgh this year, our lead character is this time called Max Newman (played by Alan Cox), a bumbling, charismatic former Tory Mayor of London who seizes his opportunity to stand for the leadership of the Conservative party and become prime minister. Sound familiar? Ahem, who could we possibly mean?
While that obvious analogue may have been the start of the writing of the play, by the end of the process Newman had become an exemplar of many different politicians in many different circumstances, almost symbolically representing those rare politicians to whom the normal laws of politics seem to have been suspended. Politicians who - whatever their faults - seem in the eyes of much of the public able to commit serial indiscretions, misdemeanours and foul-ups that no other politician would be able to survive. So with Max Newman MP you can see reflections of Farage, some mild indications of Galloway, some lightly greased Scottish Salmond and no need, after all, for the budget to stretch to a magnificent blonde wig (sorry, Alan).
KINGMAKER by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky runs at The Pleasance Edinburgh from July 30 to August 25 www.pleasance.co.uk 0131 556 6550