Exclusive: Tabloid editor mined for comedic gold

Clarion – Arcola Theatre, until 16 May 2015 (tickets)

The last few years haven’t been kind to journalists. The decline in print journalism has led to the decimation to the 20th century model of news creation whilst their standing in the public’s eyes has wpid-wp-1429963568067.jpgfallen to levels usually reserved for MPs and lawyers as phone-hacking revelations continue to destroy the industry’s slender claims to ethical credibility.

However they continue to soldier on, harbouring a dewy-eyed nostalgia for behaviour of the sort that would not be acceptable in other line of employment. Against it all journalists continue to cling to the iconic image of the noble, incorruptible news reporter – immortalised many times on screen and in print – and try to square it with the reality of a culture of bullying and humiliation that – to outsiders – seems endemic to the profession.

These tensions are evident in Mark Jagasia’s scabrous satire Clarion.  Jagasia, who worked for the Evening Standard and the Daily Express, has written a play fuelled with an intimate knowledge of its subject that is brutally scathing about the news industry, gut-wrenchingly funny in parts, but that can also be seen as a love letter to a dying friend.

Technology has left the medium wobbling on its last legs. It is likely there will be people watching this play that have never paid for a newspaper. Even the idea of a front page splash is fading as people see news as a series of equally sized tiles on mobile phones. The profession survives but it is a shadow of what it was, and it is hard not to feel that Clarion carries with it the faint note of a eulogy.

For as much as this is a comedy, it is impossible to ignore the artful nods towards Greek tragedy. It broadly adheres to the unities of time, action and place – taking place across a single day in a newsroom that is coming under increasing siege – and we see characters undone by their own hubris, whilst the modern day god of Mammon sows destruction among the just and unjust alike. Jagasia even skilfully incorporates a Tiresias-like seer in the form of a prescient horoscope writer.

That these allusions work and don’t come off as pretentious is due to Jagasia’s skill as playwright. It is a very impressive debut and, by taking time to reveal its true depth, leaves a final impression of a play that displays a far greater degree of complexity than Richard Bean’s Great Britain.

Where Great Britain was a very broad satire, and incredibly funny at times, it never scratched the surface of the issues it portrayed. It preferred caricatures to characters and one never got the sense that in reality these cartoons are actual human beings. Clarion may appear to cleave to similar stereotypes but, by limiting the cast to six core roles, Jagasia has time to add extra elements that give humanity to his creations.

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Rufus Norris: New Artistic Director of the National Theatre

Congratulations to Rufus Norris on the news that he has been appointment to follow in the footsteps of NicholasRufus-Norris Hytner to become the next artistic director of the National Theatre. Generally seen as just about favourite for the role, he has clearly exuded a behind-the-scenes confidence that has outshone his relative lack of experience.

I have read more about his work than seen it – but what I have seen has been absolutely first rate, and whilst the National has looked to broaden its horizons in recent years it has always felt that it was just dipping its toe in the waters. With Norris in post it is perhaps time that the National will truly dive headlong in what it is to produce theatre in, and for, modern Britain.

Hytner has left some big shoes to fill – and clearly they decided not to fill them with more of the same, the National have also sidestepped the opportunity for a ‘big name’. However in all reality what chance did Daldry, Mendes and Branagh really have if they were not willing to forego their cinematic commitments? Watch the bun fight when Kevin Spacey steps down at the Old Vic; a theatre that has more than understood how a ‘celebrity’ name can be a huge draw, vastly outweighing any accompanying problems.

In leaving Norris the Shed space, Hytner’s has bequeathed an excellent legacy that will pay dividends. It gives him room, in those important early years, to work in a smaller, less pressurised space to develop innovative work that may be initially hard to put though the Olivier. It gives Norris breathing space whilst he sets about changing any internal negative attitudes to his direction, and to clear house where houses need clearing.

A couple of years down the line, we may be looking at a National that really does reflect Britain today, and whilst the lack of Shakespeare is a concern (or at least it is for the purists) but perhaps fresh eyes on the playwright is really what is needed.

Norris is an excellent choice and I can’t wait to see how he leaves his mark.

Matilda: Capturing the imagination of children and the wallets of adults alike

Very good news emanating from our cousins across the pond, as Matilda opens to rave reviews from pretty much every critic on Broadway. Whilst it doesn’t make the show any less brilliant if it fails to convert to our American Matilda friends, a Broadway smash is still seen as the gold standard for any musical – and there are many West End hits that failed to become the next ‘Phantom’ (over £5.5 billion sales worldwide and counting).

As the Guardian points out, there is money to be made in this market – the RSC anticipating £11 million advance by the end of the first day. £2.5 million was made in previews alone. It recouped its £7 million costs in London in ten weeks and plays at 98% capacity ever  since its October 2011 opening. However without the Broadway gold star then it makes the global tour of ‘Les Mis’ that much more likely, it means opening up to tours of Australia and Asia, across Europe and indeed anywhere else where it could be marketed.

There may be some in the art world that still sneers at playing to the gallery, at the rather déclassé notion of thinking about returns on investment, but this ignores the 15% real terms cut to the RSC’s Arts Council funding. It ignores just how much productions like Les Mis and Warhouse lined the coffers of publically subsidised theatre companies in the times of plenty so that now, when times are difficult and will continue to be so for some time, we see the National managing to erect a completely new temporary space in ‘The Shed’ rather than cutting costs and going dark whilst the Cottesloe is renovated. It allows the RSC’s annual tour to Newcastle to be reinstated.

In the week of Thatcher’s death it seems appropriate that the biggest product in British Theatre is a musical subsidised by the public sector. It was entirely in keeping with her vision that success in theatre equated directly to success at the box office, and to this Matilda appears to of hit the brief. However could Matilda have been made purely with private investment; could the private sector have brought the true subversive nature of Dahl to the stage? Could they have taken the risk on such a child-centric production? Would they have wanted to spend money on a production that decries the traditional family, that cocks a sneer at perceived lower-brow passions and that hires a lyricist as dynamically witty as Tim Minchin?

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Ravenhill’s Rise and the RSC

Congratulations to Mark Ravenhill, as it has been announced that he will be the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Writer in Residence for 2012. As a man who is generally held critically responsible for helping to kickstart a new generation of British dramatists with the unexpected popular smash, Shopping and Fucking in 1996, it might come as a bit of a surprise. But as a regular commentator in The Guardian and on Newsnight Review, as well as advising Nicholas Hytner at the National, Ravenhill has been in higher echelons of the cultural elite for a while.

Still this doesn’t detract from what could be a promising year. Hopefully acting as a catalyst to reinvigorate a moribund new writing scene at the RSC since Adrian Noble took the reigns, Ravenhill will also have access to one of the greatest acting pools in the world to take on his work. Whilst it might prove to be a false dawn there is always the possibility, bolstered by a domestic world riven with disputes, that the playwrights may finally reassert their theatrical voice.

For more on Ravenhill, new writing and the RSC in the Guardian, click here.