While Trial by Laughter certainly isn’t the first collaborative work between Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, it is perhaps the most personal. Set in December 1817, the play tells the true story of the three successive trials of satirist William Hone. Accused of seditious libel and blasphemy by an enraged Prince Regent and Tory government, Hone was forced to convince the court of his innocence or face deportation to Australia.
It is impossible to examine the play’s narrative without at first acknowledging Ian Hislop’s past. After becoming editor of Private Eye in 1986, Hislop would go on to become the most sued person in English legal history. His disastrous appearances in court combined with a burning desire to maintain the presses’ freedom result in a play that is as much a warning concerning the potential state of the press as it is a triumphant tale of citizens achieving victory over tyranny.
Perhaps the most inventive way that this message was conveyed was through the play’s imaginative stage design. The set changed constantly, with the only constant being one large clockface upstage. While its design altered from scene to scene, it served as a physical manifestation of time. Partially to remind the audience of the importance of this historical moment, whilst also presenting the events as relative to our contemporary environment. Another instance of superb set design was the subtle incorporation of the audience. Early on in the play, an uncertain Hone protests ‘this is a courtroom not a theatre’ to which his friend Cruikshank replies ‘so make it one’ leading to scenes where the audience are addressed directly and various plants within the crowd interject with their responses. The effect is clear and potent: we are in the court of public opinion, surprisingly the most reliable court in the play.
The writing was also solid. Granted, the humour was hardly subtle and the characterisation even less so yet this comes across as intentional. Indeed, in a play that examined political cartoonists and the outrageous cartoons they drew, an over abundance of subtlety would probably have felt counter-intuitive. The one exception is William Hone himself. Played with a mixture of bombastic flair and surprising sensitivity by Joseph Prowen, it is perhaps intentionally ironic that the character on trial for printing obscene material is the only character granted emotional depth.
At once funny and thought-provoking, I’d recommend watching this play if you are able to grab a ticket.