We’re taught from a young age that telling the truth is important. We’re also taught that everyone has the right to say what they think. But what happens when those two things combine to create something potentially harmful, not just to another person, but to society in general? Where do we draw the line between freedom of speech and hate speech – and what can we do about it?
Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio might have been written 30 years ago, but the issues it addresses are as fresh and current as ever. Barry Champlain, the shock jock radio DJ in Bogosian’s play, is angry, damaged, a heavy drinker and drug taker who’s incapable of maintaining a healthy adult relationship with anyone, even the people who like him. But despite appearances, his mission with the late-night radio show Night Talk – in which he encourages people to phone in and say what’s on their mind – isn’t to spread hate; instead he’s trying, in his own backwards way, to stop it. Unfortunately, his listeners aren’t getting the message… and despite Barry’s best efforts, it seems the phone is never going to stop ringing – particularly as the show’s been so successful that its bosses want to roll it out nationally.
Perhaps ironically in a play about a radio host who nobody ever sees, Matthew Jure is fascinating to watch as the chameleon-like Barry, adapting his approach at lightning speed to suit whoever’s on the end of the phone line, with the face behind the voice becoming increasingly haggard and desperate as he finally realises the monster he’s created. Isolated for the entirety of the play behind glass in his soundproof booth, he becomes almost an exhibit for his audience to examine; for better or worse, everyone thinks they know him – and have no hesitation about telling him their darkest secrets – but monologues from Barry’s three colleagues reveal the complexities behind the facade.
These three roles – nicely played by Molly McNerney, Andy Secombe and George Turvey – are necessarily a bit sketchy; their purpose is to support and facilitate Barry, both professionally and personally. The cast is completed by real-life Radio One DJ Ceallach Spellman, in a brilliant turn as vacuous teenager Kent. Invited to the studio, he’s both hilarious and horrifying in equal measure, representing for Barry everything that’s gone wrong in society.
There are two more stars in Sean Turner’s production: Max Dorey’s set, a meticulously detailed reproduction of a 1980s radio station, and Dan Bottomley’s sound design. Not surprisingly, the script calls for a lot of interaction between Barry and the recorded voices of his many callers, and this works seamlessly throughout – it’s easy to believe you’re watching an actual radio show being recorded.
Talk Radio is undoubtedly entertaining and on several occasions completely gripping, but it’s hard to leave with a smile knowing that the voices we’ve just heard haven’t gone away, and probably aren’t going to. The play certainly won’t make you feel any better about the state of the human race; if anything, Barry’s final rant is directed as much at today’s theatre audience as his Ohio-based listeners, and none of us come out of it very well. Those who spread hate aren’t the only target of his anger – he also loathes the banality of those who have nothing at all to say (I can imagine a 2017 version of Barry being incensed by the recent Love Island frenzy), and the play’s ultimate message is both damning and faintly depressing. You’d like to think that this could be a force for change, but 30 years on the sad truth is – to use Barry’s own words – it looks like we’re stuck with each other.
Talk Radio is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 23rd September.