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Trial by Laughter
The Wolsey Theatre
Inspired by a true historical story about the battle for free speech and the lengths the ruling classes will go to keep someone quiet. William Hone is the unsung hero of free speech and as a publisher in the Regency period, was persecuted and taken to court for seditious libel and blasphemy while writing funny criticisms of the Tory government and the monarchy. Having a best mate being one of the top political caricaturist of the time probably didn’t help matters.
We are delighted that Hone is acquitted after his first lengthy trial and surprised as he was, when after the lengthy celebrations in the tavern, he gets another charge for him to be back in court later that morning. Three times he went to court and each time the trial generated bigger and bigger public interest, with many thousands in attendance for trial number three. It’s a real power struggle for freedom of speech where others had failed to beat the system, they are referenced in the play along with their levels of punishment or payoffs.
It’s an intelligent comedy set in 1817 based on the crazy shenanigans of the Prince Regent and the corrupt patriarchal government trying to clamp down on the freedom of speech by a witty writer. Hone gave his own defence basing it on work which is parody and therefore theatre and art. He used the history of literature with political and religious parodies throughout history for his defence. The Prince Regent, who was characterful and obviously mad, could not think of any other way to punish this man and keep him quiet. A change of judge didn’t help, the charges of one man’s witty comments against the Prince Regent, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, with a mean and loyal Attorney General couldn’t compete with intelligent, well thought out humour.
Scenery was effectively used for the courtroom where most of the play is based, the actors were playing right to the audience as we were positioned to be the public gallery. A quick slide of furniture, a different clock face and we’re in the tavern. There was no confusion and a few flashbacks were cleverly done. A couple of musical ditties to distract us on the bigger scenes changes.
This play is not for the masses, however the historical importance is significant and well done to Ian Hislop and Nick Newman for bringing this story to theatres across the country. William Hone kept detailed records of his trials so the accuracy is high. Don’t be concerned that it is set in 1817, the historical element is very interesting if you don’t know this type of thing went on, however the concept of stifling free speech is still relevant in today’s arena. The concerns are of course, if William Hone had lost where would we be today?
Bringing this story to life on the stage with fabulous actors and laughter while learning the truth of the madness that is the political hierarchy that has been with us forever, and will never leave. A reminder that many have suffered for the freedoms we have today. And that there is always hope if we keep fighting for that truth and freedom.
There are a couple of things I cannot mention as they are total spoilers It is an entertaining and engaging play and you really should experience it.