“People like stories,” says Rupert Murdoch — a fictional Rupert Murdoch, that is — just before the lights dim on the last scene of “Ink,” James Graham’s play about the media magnate’s early days on Fleet Street.
It’s hard to argue with that idea, particularly in the context of theater, where a story well told can often be sufficient to drive an evening’s entertainment. The question raised by the arrival of “Ink” at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, after an acclaimed run in London’s West End, is how many Broadway theatergoers will be engaged by the Britain-centered story, or rather the several stories, that this deeply researched, superbly acted and mostly engrossing play chooses to tell.
Murdoch is, of course, one of the most successful businessmen of the latter half of the 20th century, with a much-analyzed history. He tends to make headlines only on the business, media and opinion pages of newspapers (those that are still drawing feeble breath, anyway), despite until recently owning two entertainment properties.
Moreover, “Ink” alludes only in passing to Murdoch’s American empire. The play, which takes place over the course of a year beginning in 1969, cracks open a chapter from Murdoch’s early career, when the Australian mogul first set out to conquer the British newspaper ecosystem by buying the failing broadsheet the Sun. Many regular New York theatergoers have probably never heard of the Sun, let alone read it. (For that matter, do many people today even know what a broadsheet is?)
What’s more, while the play garnered attention in London as a vividly staged expose of Murdoch’s opening gambit on Fleet Street, the central character is not really Murdoch, played by Bertie Carvel (of “Matilda”), but Larry Lamb, the editor he hires to take charge of his new acquisition, played by Jonny Lee Miller.
Nevertheless, if the material may be arcane to the general public, the director, Rupert Goold (“Enron,” “King Charles III”), and his top-notch cast certainly deliver the play with enough flash, splash and flair to burnish its allure, turning a rather dry tale of inside-baseball journalism — British journalism from decades ago, yet — into a theatrical pageant with its own tabloid-style appeal, including singing, dancing and quite a lot of piano-playing.
Miller’s Larry Lamb is a scrappy, hungry young editor working in Manchester when Murdoch, played by Carvel with a serpentine mixture of courtliness and ruthlessness (although, oddly, nary a trace of an Australian accent), offers him the job of editing the Sun, which he has newly acquired from the company that owns the Daily Mirror, the country’s most successful tabloid. (I’ve barely begun sketching the plot and we are deep in the weeds of journalism history; it’s that kind of play.)
Lamb initially scoffs: The Sun, he says, is a “laughing stock,” a “stuck-up broadsheet that has never once made a profit.” But Murdoch, with the eyes of an outsider, sees its potential. His intention is not just to radically remake the paper — Presto! It’s a tabloid! — but to reshape the world of British journalism, and thence British society, by giving it “a popular paper, for the masses, one that can ‘unleash’ a part of us, a part of the British character that I think, humbly speaking, I know, has never been tapped into, but is there, yearning for stuff.”
Lamb, played by Miller with a galvanizing force that gives the play a propulsive center, ultimately succumbs to Murdoch’s sweet-talking — and not-so-sweet-taunting, when he gibes that Lamb will never be allowed into the club of top-tier editors because he, like Murdoch, doesn’t have the proper upper-class British background. And so the first act is largely taken up with Lamb’s frantic efforts to put together a staff, for despite Murdoch’s already considerable wealth, the paper is run on a shoestring: “Radical thought,” Murdoch tells the company’s deputy chairman, Sir Alick McKay (Colin McPhillamy), “I’m going to run my paper – like it’s a business.”
In a series of short, sharp scenes taking place against a towering pile of beaten-up old metal desks (the imposing set is by Bunny Christie), where actors energetically peck away at typewriters, we watch as Lamb puts together a ragtag band of journalism oddballs and desperados while sprinting toward the Murdoch-imposed deadline of overtaking the rival Daily Mirror within a year.
He poaches from the Daily Mirror itself his news editor, a self-proclaimed “hack” crime reporter, Brian McConnell (the excellent David Wilson Barnes, exhausted then energized), by chasing him around Fleet Street bars. He talks the tough-as-nails Joyce Hopkirk (a tough-as-nails Tara Summers) into coming aboard as the “woman’s editor.” He corrals the finicky Bernard Shrimsley (Robert Stanton, finicky) into becoming deputy editor. Another unlikely recruit: the long-haired, androgynous Beverley Goodway (Andrew Durand, amusingly dithery), a photographer used to snapping pictures of corpses, who will soon be training his camera on live, half-naked women, as the Sun, under Murdoch’s urging and with Lamb’s inspiration, goes for the gut and the loins, not the head.
Yikes! My own deadline is nearing, and I haven’t even waded all the way through the first act, which also includes a probably needless diversion in which we are treated to the nuts and bolts of the production of a pre-digital newspaper. As portentously staged by Goold, this sequence comically recalls the dark underworld ruled over by the dwarf Alberich in “Das Rheingold,” full of sweating souls toiling away over the presses.
The pace slackens somewhat as the play switches tracks in the second act, moving from the frantic depiction of the early days of the Sun’s rising profile (thanks to free giveaways, horoscopes, sensational headlines and those barely clad women) and concentrates on a story that both hits close to home in a cruel way — Sir Alick’s wife is kidnapped — and also tests just how far Lamb will go (farther than Murdoch initially wants) in exploiting it. Graham, whose sympathy for Lamb moves to the fore in the more ruminative later passages, also depicts Lamb wrestling with his increasingly loud demons over a decision to force a young woman to go entirely topless, in a final bid to close the gap between by Sun and the Daily Mirror by the deadline.
Perhaps surprisingly, given Murdoch’s legend as the man most responsible for the dumbing-down of journalism across more than one medium, Graham resists much in the way of editorializing about his ethics. His portrait of Murdoch is hardly damning; he is depicted rather as a hard-headed but not entirely soulless businessman who merely sees a new way of harvesting a bumper crop of profits by exploiting people’s inherent baser tastes.
A theatrical takedown of Murdoch would be redundant, of course: David Hare and Howard Brenton wrote a scathing fictionalized portrait of Murdoch more than 30 years ago in “Pravda.” Still, Graham does not let Murdoch entirely off the hook for his hardly benign influence on the business. During the last scene, Murdoch gloats over the fall of his rival, the chairman of the Daily Mirror: “The first house has toppled. Soon all that’ll be left to remind us it was ever there are lines of empty buildings, like tombstones. ‘Here lies.’ Hah!”
And then he adds: “Here lies, fuck, ain’t that the truth?”
Coming from the lips of the man who would go on to create Fox News, not exactly known for its inveterate truth-telling, this may leave the journalists in the audience — for whom the show probably has the greatest interest — not just dispirited, but fighting an urge to throw things at the stage.
“Ink” opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Wed., April 24, 2019.
Creative: Written by James Graham; Original Music by Adam Cork; Directed by Rupert Goold; Scenic Design by Bunny Christie; Costume Design by Bunny Christie; Lighting Design by Neil Austin; Sound Design by Adam Cork; Projection Design by Jon Driscoll.
Producers: Manhattan Theatre Club, The Almeida Theatre Company and Sonia Friedman Productions.
Cast: Bertie Carvel, Jonny Lee Miller, David Wilson Barnes, Ian Bedford, Bill Buell, William Connell, Andrew Durand, Eden Marryshow, Christopher McHale, Colin McPhillamy, Jessica Naimy, Erin Neufer, Kevin Pariseau, Rana Roy, Michael Siberry, Robert Stanton, Tara Summers, Daniel Yearwood.