The Media Moguls

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Review of 'Victory at the Dirt Palace' by Adriano Shaplin, Riverside Studios, London, and touring

A terrorist attack has just occurred in the US, and father and daughter are live on air as rival network newsreaders. At stake are their reputations and careers--all is dependent on the television rating figures. This is merely the public face of a deep and bitter private rift that has long estranged the pair, and provided material for the tabloid newspapers.

This is the centrepiece of a play first performed at the Edinburgh Festival that seeks to satirise the news broadcasting industry through a reinterpretation of Shakespeare's King Lear. The emotional journeys and political manoeuvring of the original are condensed to revolve around four characters, who pretty much remain seated throughout. This static arrangement naturally places enormous importance on the script alone to carry the play. It just about achieves it. According to its writer, this inspiration stems from the impact that motivational speakers in positions of power have.

Written and performed by Adriano Shaplin, the script is biting, sharp, and delivered at breakneck speed by the California-based theatre company The Riot Group. It sometimes comes across as a little self righteous, but then again this blends in well with the tone generated from within the newsroom. The performances are compelling, and often so emotionally absorbing that, combined with the claustrophobia of the studio, you're left uncomfortably wondering whether you ought to leave the room.

At its satirical height it does have some memorable moments, such as during the live showdown between father and daughter, where a retaliatory declaration of war is announced one minute, followed quickly by the breaking news of a resounding victory. This simply but brilliantly illustrates the media's desire for immediate conclusions, retribution and justice--a story. Also, in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack, the newsreaders struggle for the ultimate sentimental formulation to give them the edge in the ratings war, and consolidate their place as the US's trusted and compassionate face.

On the whole, though, it struggles to raise itself beyond mere observation. It comments consistently on the sensationalist priorities of news broadcasts and consequently how words are juggled to the detriment of insight and understanding, but it has little to say about the economic and social conditions that shape the news agenda. There is nothing, for example, about media monopolies, or about post 11 September bias and uncritical reporting of US foreign policy, and the curtailment of civil liberties. It's not quite political satire, but as a script it is imaginatively written and interesting--if, for nothing else, its sheer intensity.