From Wagatha Christie to Donald Trump: can rapid-fire real-life drama upstage the news?

Dramatising the latest watercooler story doesn’t guarantee you box-office success. The stiffest competition may come from reality’s own high drama

Just before the curtain came up on Vardy v Rooney: The Wagatha Christie Trial, producer Eleanor Lloyd spoke to the audience about its breakneck transposition from real-life courtroom drama to stage show and the “high-wire act” that such theatre becomes. The part-verbatim show dramatises the case that was detonated soon after Coleen Rooney dropped her Instagram grenade and Rebekah Vardy filed for libel.

Having run in the high court and been reported in the media only a few months earlier, here it was again, reprising the best lines, from chipolata-gate to Davy Jones’s Locker. Laying its public interest debate aside, it was indisputably the watercooler story of the spring and summer, its incredible WhatsApp turns holding us rapt.

That, in some ways, guarantees a degree of commercial appeal, although there are drawbacks too: a drama replicating reality so soon after the event runs the risk of setting up a competition with the real story’s own high drama. Lloyd wasn’t wrong to call it a “high-wire act” in the sense that the best might already have come in the news stories. How could this show replicate the sugar-rush of those revelations? It is not surprising that the tension was missing in the theatre’s courtroom: the case’s most car-crash lines were too familiar to us to really shock. We’d laughed or gasped at them only a few months earlier. Now we tittered with recognition but they sounded ersatz.

There are some instances when reality is simply a more powerful medium and fictional drama can’t raise the stakes, or value – at least not when we are still pressed up so close to the drama of the new story. At least the Wagatha play was based in verbatim form (there is a TV drama launching, groan). Real life gives us more drama than fiction ever could in this case, I think, because its central players are real and the form therefore carries the added sense of “truth”.

Mike Bartlett’s play about Donald Trump, The 47th, was anti-climactic for just this reason. Real life simply couldn’t be trumped, even with the imaginative re-framing of the story in a near-future with baroque plot-turns and a very amusing impersonation of the former president by an orange-skinned Bertie Carvel. The jokes, speeches and storming of the Capitol were too reminiscent of recent real events, and not half as shocking. Imagination clung too closely to fact in the end and was smothered by it.

John Malkovich in Bitter Wheat, written and directed by David Mamet at the Garrick theatre, London, in 2019.
John Malkovich in Bitter Wheat, written and directed by David Mamet at the Garrick theatre, London, in 2019. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

A musical about Silvio Berlusconi is under way which I hope is not straitjacketed in the same way. It is billed as an “almost true story” – presumably weaving fiction into the facts we know of Berlusconi’s life and leadership. Produced by Francesca Moody, who was behind Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, the story will be told through a “fierce feminist lens” according to Moody, and perhaps this will liberate its imagination.

Often real-life-based dramas fail because they can’t illuminate anything new. But at their worst they appear to be riding on the back of a sensational news story. This was the case with David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat, and Steven Berkoff’s Harvey, both dramatising the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal. What exactly was the point, beyond salaciousness? Alongside this, the unsavoury decision to dramatise the scandal from Weinstein’s point of view, with the added discomfort of two male writers ventriloquising for him at a time when women might better have been given a voice.

There is an argument, more generally, to say that the creative process needs time to turn real life into something more than testimony or imitation alone – to gain insights, find new perspectives, plumb depths. That said, many of the quick-response dramas on screen made during the pandemic about frontline workers and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 reflected our world back at us with immense and immediate power. These were produced in real time, as events were occurring, rather like Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet series. They were mirrors of events churning in the world, which held value in that charged moment.

Come from Away by Irene Sankoff and David Hein at the Phoenix theatre, London, in 2019.
Come from Away by Irene Sankoff and David Hein at the Phoenix theatre, London, in 2019. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

But after that moment is gone, we do need drama to bring something more, I think. One such show that recently ran at the Chisenhale Gallery, in London, featured excerpts of a film made inside a closed mental health hospital ward in 2021 to reflect the pandemic’s effects on young inpatients. This film was set against live performances by some of the same young people, since discharged (and included their responses to the film). Seth Pimlott, who curated the show, said it demonstrated how drama could help us better understand difficult real-world experience.

Maybe creative licence is key: to make a news story into something different. The 9/11 musical Come from Away, based on the true story of over 6,000 travellers grounded in the tiny town of Gander on the island of Newfoundland for five days after the Twin Towers attacks, sounds like the unlikeliest of hit shows. What is remarkable about the real-life aspect is that it is so marginal to the main event of the terrorist attacks, and the far bigger, more catastrophic drama happening in New York. It is clear in the musical that something else is being done with the use of the documentary material. The plot, as it stands, is slight. Nothing happens outwardly beyond the grounding of these planes and passengers, and yet so much happens in terms of relationships and emotional connections. By coming at the news story sideways, it becomes fresher. The imagination, in the end, needs to upstage the facts and so achieve the high-wire act of the real-life drama.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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