You can see immediately why Ian Hislop and his partner in satire, Nick Newman, came up with the idea of Trial By Laughter, as their next stage project.
In 1817 bookseller, publisher and satirist William Hone stood trial for parodying religion, the despotic government and the libidinous monarchy.
The only crime he and, by default, although never charged, his cartoon-drawing sidekick George Cruikshank, had committed, was to be funny.
Hone was dragged into court, three times in as many days. The powers that be did their best to rig the proceedings so that a guilty verdict was ensured – only they hadn’t reckoned on the persuasive Mr Hone, who represented himself from the dock.
Satirists Hislop and Newman have rediscovered this forgotten hero of free speech to ask, if, just over two hundred years later, our press has any greater freedom.
In an era when freedom of the press has never been more under threat, this is a timely production about a very important subject – at least to us journalists.
It has just opened at The Watermill Theatre, Newbury, ahead of an extended national tour, and is playing to capacity audiences, which is marvellous. One hopes that the well heeled of Berkshire feel as strongly about the issue as its writers.
But, catching the show last night, I have my doubts. It’s funny – in places – and is well acted with Joseph Prowen an engaging and charismatic Hone and Jeremy Lloyd turning in a hilarious performance as the portly Prince Regent.
However, if you took away the laughter track which accompanies the courtroom scenes, the reaction from the actual audience, last night at least, was more subdued.
As a journalist I, like its writers, am passionate about freedom of the press and free speech but I wonder how interested the general public are? Do they care?
Perhaps I’m being cynical but if you stopped a dozen people in the street and asked them how they felt about the subject, I’m guessing about ten would simply shrug their shoulders and be non-committal.
So is there an audience, beyond those of us who work in the media, sufficiently interested for a satire like this?
I’d never heard of Hone but his part in ensuring an independent press is unquestionable.
At the beginning of the 19th century he published a self-penned pamphlet called the Reformist’s Register, which parodied current events of the day, namely the whoring, drunken Prince Regent, a corrupt government and its ministers, and an amoral, shamefully dishonest judiciary.
His bookshop also sold politically inspired satirical cartoons, drawn by Cruikshank. Understandably the pair got up the nose of everyone in power and a decision was taken to close the operation down.
The father of eight was arrested and, because, of poverty, had to mount his own defence, with the amiable George encouraging him to use humour to defeat the establishment.
Trial By Laughter is a slim story so we follow the case not once, but three times (which smacks of repetition), as he fearlessly fights against deportation to Australia and, even possibly the death sentence.
“It’s not a libel. It’s a parody,” he argues. “‘Tis but a joke.”
Director, Caroline Leslie’s, production intercuts between the Hone’s shop, home, the local tavern, where Hone and Cruikshank meet their political allies and friends, like the essayist William Hazlitt, and the courthouse.
The auditorium is incorporated, along with its theatre-goers, who become the rabble and jury attending the trials. We weren’t an unruly bunch last night but a few well-placed hecklers at the back boosted the ambiance.
Prowen captures the idealistic and spirited recklessness of Hone, including his naivety. He firmly believed that he would be cleared as he had right and justice on his side without reckoning on the corruption of both the bench and the legal system.
Lloyd is a uproarious as the larger-than-life Prince Regent, George IV, epitomising Cruikshank’s bawdy lampoons of the royal who regularly romped with not one but two mistresses (Helena Antoniou as the ample Lady Hertford and Eva Scott as the buxom Lady Conyngham).
And Dan Tetsell is quietly impressive as critic, William Hazlitt, while also doubling up as judge, politician and Hone’s fiercest critic, Edward Law, Lord Ellenborough.
There are moments of farce, an inevitable fart joke (“You can’t fail with flatulence!” argues Peter Losasso’s Cruikshank) and a fascinating, worthy, relevant, important story but is it enough for a wider audience? I hope so.
Trial By Laughter runs at The Watermill Theatre, Newbury, until October 27.
October 29 – November 3, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford November 5 – 10, The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich November 12 – 17, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham November 19 – 24, Theatre Royal, Brighton January 21 – 26, Malvern Theatre January 28 – February 2, The Lowry February 4 – 9, Chichester Festival Theatre February 11 – 16, King’s Theatre, Glasgow February 18 – 23, Richmond Theatre February 25 – March 2, Milton Keynes Theatre March 4 – 9, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne
Trial By Laughter
Trial By Laughter
Ian Hislop & Nick Newman’s new satire, Trial By Laughter, presents a powerful case for free speech but the jury’s out on its appeal to the general public.