It is perhaps unfair to say that the most interesting element to Theatr Clwyd’s The Assassination of Katie Hopkins has been the media response, but one has to wonder how much attention James Grieve’s musical satire would have garnered had it had a different title. The Assassination of Liberalism may have been just as accurate. The Assassination of Verbatim Theatre just as warmly received in some quarters. In the week Lyn Gardner announced that The Guardian would not be renewing her contract after 23 years, there is much talk of the decline of serious criticism – or at least the support for it by the larger media organisations – and yet she was in Mold, sitting alongside reviewers from a slew of nationals, to add to the discussion on the BBC’s flagship television review show, Front Row, as well as a spread of preview and interview segments on TV, radio and online. With the notable exception of Ms Gardner, it just isn’t very often these other outlets travel over the border to Wales. And so the production team of The Assassination… makes their first point – Katie Hopkins sucks in the media like a storm drain.
Indeed, (disclaimer) I was there for my BBC Radio Wales programme, The Review Show (plug klaxon!). In an age where everybody needs to be talking about something, the title alone promised something to talk about. And this, to an extent, is what the The Assassination… is about – as a piece of conceptual art that steps off the stage and rummages around in your personal space it packs a certain power. But how much of this power is blunt and short-lived is essential to the overall experience, and this is where the aching liberalism of the show’s creators is no match for the scorched earth ruthlessness of hacks like Hopkins. If this is about debate, then the real life Katie Hopkins has wiped the floor with Theatr Clwyd without really even getting in the ring.
Without seeing it, she has condemned it; on press night a small gaggle of right-wing protestors plonked themselves outside the theatre calling for a tarring and feathering of someone, anyone, for this affront to “freedom of speech” or something. Coming out after the performance, audience members no doubt talked in hushed tones about the balance of the narrative, about the nuances, about how Katie Hopkins is actually dealt with in very sympathetic terms. But that doesn’t matter, the real Hopkins already has the slogan for her t-shirt, and she didn’t have to look any further than the title of the play. This is a prime example of how fascists win the day, strutting from burning vehicle to burning vehicle, why the left are still searching for their car keys.
The words “Katie” and “Hopkins” translate into hits on a website. People love to hate her – she is ghastly, after all – but people also love to hate snowflake liberals; (never let it be said one sad oik with a pocket-full of unfulfilled dreams cannot find thirty seconds of relief at a keyboard by bullying someone who is trying to stand against aggression and racism). Media organisations chase these hits because they translate somewhere down the line into revenue (stop me if you’ve heard all this before). Theatr Clwyd surely know this too. Somewhere deep in this process is a core that bypasses any true intellectual honesty on the subject. Yes, The Assassination of Katie Hopkins is a piece about controversy that courts controversy – fine. But it is also brazenly sucking people toward it because of the “clickbait” of its title. Also, I suppose, fine. But the challenge then is to deliver something worthy of the set-up. If this is a place to be overly-ambitious, then be sure to flatten everything in your path. Nod to Jerry Springer: The Opera, nod to The Book of Mormon, nod to Hilary Mantel. But then you have to be that good. The Assassination of Katie Hopkins is not that good, not by a long shot. It lacks narrative focus, it lacks real philosophical depth, and most importantly, for all its energy, never really moves past ponderousness.
The question of focus is something a half decent dramaturg would have flagged up at an early stage. The Assassination… sells itself as an exploration of the fallout from the death of a controversial figure. You could have picked from a rogues gallery of opportunistic far-right rabble-rousers, but rather than killing off Farage or Rod Liddle or another juicy blowhard, they went with a woman, and perhaps going with Katie Hopkins helped open up avenues of misogyny for exploration. There also are moments when #MeToo raises its head, one plot strand is clearly evoking the Grenfell Tower fire, and perhaps we go too further into tangential consequences of online abuse than we need to. The focus of the story shifts too often too quickly, and ironically none of these strands are satisfyingly explored. The performances are good – there is a good deal of talent showcased here – but they are let down by… here it is again… a lack of focus in the concept, writing, and directing.
You could argue – and a better play may have convinced me to give this more credence – that the point of The Assassination… is to draw attention to the superficial nature of modern media-led debate with its own scud. Writer Chris Bush’s annoying use of half-lines could be suggesting nobody is listening, why bother finishing your sentence? A character in one of the denouements turns to the audience and says, “What am I even talking about?” But these scraps would be more filling in a better show. There is little to evoke confidence that such artistic depths are intentional.
The Assassination of Katie Hopkins has decided to only ask questions, and leave the audience to decide what the meaning of all this is. To that extent this misses the first necessity of great satire – that it must deliver the fine jab of a rapier point, it does not fire cannon balls into the air to see where they land. Open debate, hold up a mirror, by all means, but please do it with a bit of courage. At no point are we given any suggestion that the creators of The Assassination of Katie Hopkins really know where they stand on all this. They stand for debate? Give me a break. Or at least give me a collection of artists who show awareness of the state of the world, who seem to at least acknowledge this kind of shallow liberal equivalency is the attitude that allowed fascists like Hopkins into the public sphere in the first place – this attitude gave us Hopkins, Brexit, Trump. Telling us Hopkins is a real person does not help us understand why she thinks dead Syrian babies washing up on the shores of Europe are not. Should we not now demand our artists take a stand on these issues rather than just “hold up a mirror”? Instead of courage however, we have them sit with us in the audience, shrugging, “Everything’s absolutely fucked, isn’t it?” Yes, it is. We all already know this. And The Assassination of Katie Hopkins certainly does absolutely nothing to help unfuck it.