A court in northern France on Monday began hearing a case brought by one of Britain‘s secretive Barclay brothers, who own The Daily Telegraph and the Ritz Hotel, claiming he was defamed in a play by a French writer.
David Barclay, who shares along with his twin brother Frederick an estimated fortune of £8 billion (10.4 billion dollars, 9.3 billion euros), is suing playwright Hedi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre for violation of privacy and defamation.
The trial is expected to last several weeks, and the court in the northwestern city of Caen said Monday that it would issue its ruling on July 2.
If the court rules in favour of David Barclay, the play could be banned from performance and the theatres that performed it forced to pay damages of tens of thousands of euros.
Barclay himself is seeking 100,000 euros in damages for what he claims is libel and a violation of his privacy.
The play, “Les Deux Freres et les Lions” (“The Two Brothers and the Lions”), was performed at the 150-seat Theatre de Poche in Paris up to March 31 this year and was critically acclaimed.
The play does not mention the Barclay brothers directly. But it does not take much effort to see parallels with the pair who built a vast property and media empire after being born into a modest Scottish family.
“The irresistible rise of two Scottish immigrants. This tale is about twins from a poor background who came to have one of the biggest fortunes of Great Britain by the end of the 20th century,” the theatre says of the play.
“This isn’t a case of censorship… A theatre isn’t a law-free zone. David Barclay has inherent rights,” his lawyer Christophe Bigot told the court on Monday.
But Olivier Morice, a lawyer for the play’s author, asked judges to reject Barclay’s claims on the grounds of “creative freedom.”
“It’s fiction,” he said, saying Clermont-Tonnerre had carried out research “to be inspired by a reality, which he used to create a work that is a tale.”
‘Freedom of expression’
The defence argues the play’s aim was to shed light on the continued use of feudal law from the mediaeval Norman era in the Channel Islands off the northern coast of France, which are self-governing dependencies of Britain.
The Barclay brothers live part of the time in a vast mock Gothic castle on the Channel Island of Brecqhou, neighbouring the island of Sark, and are known to fiercely defend their privacy, often through legal action.
Ahead of the hearing, Clermont-Tonnerre, 44, told AFP that “in France there is complete freedom to talk about public figures.
“We are in the country of Voltaire, it is a case of freedom of expression,” he added, referring to the great 18th-century French writer.
He described the case as “extraordinary“, pitting one of the richest individuals in Britain against a “play which played in a small Paris theatre“.
According to defence documents, the playwright drew inspiration only from well known aspects of David Barclay’s life and almost all the elements in the play “are all fictional and imagined by the author“.
Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre “respected a distance between the text and the reality“, it said.
“The play reveals no element of the private life of David Barclay,” it said, accusing him of having “excessive sensitivity” and an “exacerbated taste for secrecy”.