Long before the arrival of reality TV – before speed cameras, before recording angels on buses and lamp posts – I felt I was living in a country that already knew how to watch itself. It was journalism that held the responsibility for seeing who we were and noticing what we did. It was newspapers, especially, that kept an eye on our leaders, taking nothing at face value and being wary of public relations.
Times changed, and we became, via our phones, our computers and our minds, a nation that could look at everything and see nothing. As an old creative industry full of cruelty and moral sense, British journalism once flourished on the imperative that people required the truth in order to survive. But people don’t require that now. They want sensation and they want it for nothing. Some newspapers try to resist, but they are dying. And what is not dead in them is principally in thrall to the Daily Mail.
It may simply be an old problem that is meeting its moment. Twenty-five years before the Mail was founded, Leo Tolstoy was using words that might have shocked Lord Leveson: ‘All newspaper and journalistic activity,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘is an intellectual brothel from which there is no retreat.’ And that was before cameras really got involved, before secret recording, before telephoto lenses and the hacking of mobile phones. In some sense our conscience has gone, for we sell it very cheap nowadays, and it’s hard for journalism to keep moral faith with itself when the market is so exacting. But the question remains: how did the industry fall so low?
The theatre was ready for the question in a way that nowhere else really could be. Why is that? You’ll find your own answers watching Enquirer, but, for me, it is because the theatre is a mind that opens every time the lights go down. Only in the empty, unbiased space of the theatre, only in this projection of reality onto a created space, did it seem possible to ask exactly what was happening to the British papers. A theatre is not a blank page for editorial, it is not a soapbox or a tannoy system: it is a conscience that wakes with what is happening in the space, and wakes further still in response to what people are making of it. Ernest Lubitsch, the great German film-maker, once said it was the job of the artist ‘to suggest “two plus two”. Let the audience say “four”.’
Newspapers want to make their own calculations. Or they want to ignore the sums and hope for the best. But in this case we could take the voices alone – the voices of the 43 journalists who were interviewed – and animate them morally in a brand new theatre piece. As you’d expect, the story of newspapers is top-heavy with commentary, but what would happen if you let the voices find a different embodiment, a different level of meaning? They might be inflected, enlarged, or changed by the voices they are next to, the new space in which they’re heard, the lighting surrounding them, the music, the place, the aliveness of the actors who find the words. All of these things can take mere ‘commentary’ or ‘evidence’ and make it exist for the audience in ways they had never considered before. For us, it wasn’t simply the opportunity of remaining verbatim; it was the chance to make an argument in the present tense, in the current moment of theatre and see what it says, every time, every night, to every audience member who is there.
That was why the theatre was the way to go. Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany came to me with the suggestion that the smaller story might be the bigger story: how do people inside the industry talk about themselves; how do they formulate the story of their own decline? At this point, the London Review of Books came on board as co-producers, in part because they have a long history of asking crucial questions indirectly and we shared that instinct. We wanted something new. In some senses the public inquiry was demonstrating how the camera, even whilst it pointed the finger, was making everyone (as Susan Sontag once suggested) a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually a tourist in one’s own. It seemed to us that the theatre might energise that problem rather than be defeated by it. The evidence, however dramatic before the cameras, needed to find an actual theatrical level at which it could seem to call itself into question and implicate the audience.
We went to work. As the Leveson Inquiry unfolded in real time around us, we saw how the play might set reality free from the constraints of the news agenda. And free it, most of all, from the daily bid to understand it to death. Understanding events is not the same as experiencing them, and the camera and the internet have a tendency to confuse us in that respect: we feel we are looking at events, online or on TV, but we don’t feel they can touch us or make us different. This was the experience that was killing newspapers, but the newspapers could only compete, tweeting and blogging and churning away, in Nick Davies’s phrase, without the ire to fight for contemplation. So that was how we entered the space, wanting to make a play about the newsmakers that the newsmakers couldn’t make, because it needed the freedom of the unknown in order to find itself. And we try that with every performance.
‘Reality’ is a notion that journalists take ever so slightly for granted. They are trained to identify it, to record it, to give it context and make it legally viable. Yet few of them, especially news journalists, are good at working with what is manufactured, and that’s a problem because so much of reality today is manufactured, whether we’re talking about declared numbers of civilian war casualties or the latest research into consumer taste. Much of what passes for information in our daily lives is in actual fact more akin to a form of organised dreaming. Very often the truth gets spun out of existence. I mention this because it’s one of the reasons I’ve come to find the theatre amenable to certain problems in reality: in the right hands, the theatre is much better at managing uncertainty, mobilising darkness and light, and revealing through dreams what is not quite evident to our waking selves. Given the way society has gone, we might say this makes the theatre a bastion of the imaginatively real.
During rehearsals we interrogated the material that came from interviews with dozens of journalists, and we kept asking not only what was said, what was meant, but how altered it was becoming in the transition from the tapes to the stage, where actors began to accept the words and take their place in a living argument. But for us it was always going to be the space itself that commandeered the audience: they could read these testimonies and learn things, but I would argue – I think all my colleagues would argue – that what they experienced as readers would be experienced in a familiar vacuum. In the theatre it would live by implication and silence as much as by utterance. And that’s what drama sets out to create. You hear a lot about ‘social conscience’ and about ‘socially responsible’ theatre: I don’t particularly know what that is, but I agree with the directors of Enquirer that the theatre space is sometimes a place, and sometimes the only place, where people can come and immerse themselves as old problems are played out in new dimensions. The culture and ethics of British journalism may never have occasioned such drama as we are seeing – such noise, such scandal, playing out on our television screens – but for us the chance is to take our audience into a building and show them a group of actors, a series of walls and corners and voices, a flow of images, an echo of hopes, a raising of lights. And there we invite that audience to dwell for a time with the complications of truth.