Following their previous stage success The Wipers Times, which sold out both in the West End and across the country, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman are back to entertain us with their latest sharply observed stage production, showing this week at The Lowry theatre, Salford.
Inspired by real life events and based on the critically acclaimed original BBC4 drama of the same name, Trial by Laughter, takes us back over two centuries to 1817, and tells the tale of bookseller, publisher and satirist William Hone (engagingly and energetically played by Joseph Prowen), who stood trial for parodying religion, the despotic government and the lustful monarchy.
As Ian Hislop himself highlights in the programme notes. he’s been the defendant in a number of libel trials in the past in his capacity as Editor of Private Eye.
Political, satirical and let’s add hysterical cartoonist Nick Newman, is equally qualified to tell this tale of whether humour sees off libel when it comes to press freedom.
The stage is set up so that for courtroom scenes (frequently and cleverly interspersed by rapid location changes which punctuate the play), Judge, prosecution and defence face us, the audience, who find ourselves in the position of jury and public gallery.
This device works well although it should be noted that any reaction displayed to proceedings will be assisted by the brilliantly funny retorts from unseen attendees as piped through from the back of the theatre.
This historical romp takes us through Hone’s three separate court hearings held over three consecutive days, such is the insistence of Prince Regent (depicted brilliantly by Jeremy Lloyd – each of his scenes a living, breathing satirical cartoon) to have Hone punished for
ridiculing his somewhat rotund appearance. publishing satirical versions of texts heard in church.
A charge of blasphemous libel is brought against Hone which carried potential sentences of a lengthy prison sentence or deportation to Australia.
It was even more impressive, therefore, that William Hone represented himself in court to fight off such weighty accusations.
Now, I went to see this fine play during the same week that I concluded a journey down the rabbit hole that is the Netflix Conversation with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.
Stay with me.
The only parallel I am drawing here is the wish for an accused to provide his own legal defence. History books and a visit to the theatre will tell you who was the more successful…Oh and Netflix.
In a post-Leveson Inquiry era, filled with super-injuctions and fevered attempts for the law to catch up with social media, this brilliant tale begs the question, can laughter outweigh libel (and should it)?
(I think yes, but don’t listen to me. I bring Bundy into everything.)
Trial by Laughter is showing at The Lowry until Saturday 2 February. For tickets and more details including cast and production, visit The Lowry website.
Photo credit: Philip Tull (unless specified otherwise).