“I can’t bear it any more, though I don’t know what ‘it’ is.” This was the suicide note left by James Mossman, BBC correspondent, former MI6 operative and the subject of Nicholas Wright’s engaging new play at the National.
Wright starts with Mossman’s death, from an overdose in his Norfolk cottage in 1971, and then goes back over the man’s eventful life to try and shed some light on that mysterious ‘it.’ Ben Chaplin gives a superb performance in the role, often lit sharply from above and speaking in lengthy monologues, as if Mossman were delivering an on-air report on his own life.
Though a brilliant journalist, and one of the BBC’s most talented reporters, in his personal life he was less successful. A homosexual, he became involved with a younger man, a demanding and unstable Canadian potter.
Played by Bent’s Chris New, Mossman’s lover Louis is a man full of anger – and much of it is directed at Mossman for what Louis sees as his supposed lack of integrity as a journalist – but this constant complaining has the effect of making his character a total pain in the neck, shrill and impossible to warm to.
Though the play is riddled with affection for the BBC of a bygone age, for a style of reporting that no longer exists, it is also under no illusion about how difficult it was to be a public figure in the closet in the 1960s, and the couple’s erratic relationship was put under strain, not just by Louis’s increasingly self-destructive tendencies, but also by Mossman’s fear of being outed.
It is this concern about his reputation that led him to betray Louis in a quite shocking way; a betrayal that surely must have contributed to the ‘it’ of Mossman’s note, though Wright does not suggest that this is the sole answer. Indeed The Reporter never reaches any hard conclusions in this respect; instead it sets out a number of factors that may have played a part in his decision to take his own life, something it is all the stronger for.
Richard Eyre’s production is simply but effectively presented, the minimal set consisting of a single white curtain onto which archive footage is projected. The scenes of Mossman’s BBC days, as a reporter on Panorama and a foreign correspondent in Vietnam before he was forced to make the switch to the dreaded world of arts journalism, following a particularly confrontational interview with Harold Wilson are particularly well done. The play loses some of its momentum after the interval when Mossman begins putting his affairs in order prior to his suicide, but it is never less than engaging.
The supporting cast are all on good form, particularly Paul Ritter who gives a nicely comic turn as Robin Day, but this is Chaplin’s show, and though he looks a little too young for the role, his performance is perfectly pitched, superficially cool and collected, but with a lot going on under the surface.
A guy behind me complained that the play was “too talky” for his liking, but I hardly see that as a flaw. I could have done without the jarring fizz of sentiment in the closing scenes, but otherwise this is an entertaining and layered production; a fascinating examination of the ways in which screen journalism has evolved over the years, even if Mossman himself remains an enigma to the end.