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Ink playwright James Graham gets his hands dirty covering London's tabloid revolution
"A few years ago, it became apparent to me that something was changing in the way we spoke to each other on social media," says British playwright James Graham. "Our politics were becoming more populist, and our press was becoming more aggressive." This realization -- thrown into sharp relief by the Brexit referendum in his country and Trump's victory in ours -- inspired Graham to start writing about a man who's stood at the crossroads of media and politics for decades: Rupert Murdoch. The resulting play Ink dramatizes a defining moment in the 88-year-old mogul's rise: his 1969 revamp of The Sun into a top-selling British tabloid. A hit on London's West End in 2017, the drama arrives on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre with Bertie Carvel reprising his Olivier Award-winning performance as Murdoch.
It's no surprise that Graham was drawn to such a seemingly niche topic. The 36 year old has managed to make drama out of Parliamentary brinksmanship in the 1970s (This House), Internet surveillance and data mining (Privacy) and the career of a low-level politico (Labour of Love). "I always quite like writing about institutions," he says. "It made sense for me to go back to what felt like the starting point for a new kind of news that just sounded, looked and smelled differently to what had come before it."
The purchase and staffing of a newspaper half a century ago may not sound like inherently gripping stage material, but Graham, in collaboration with director Rupert Goold, makes it a fast, profane tale of ink-stained underdogs. The first half chronicles Murdoch's wooing of eventual Sun editor Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller), a regional newsman who always felt slighted by his London peers. Over lobster and wine at a posh eatery, Murdoch makes Lamb an offer he can't resist: the opportunity to build the populist publication he wants and a chance to beat the stuffy leading paper, The Mirror, in circulation. In Act II, Ink grows darker and grimmer as Lamb navigates several moral quandaries. For instance, when the wife of one of the paper's top executives is kidnapped and held for ransom, should that be reported in its pages?
For American audiences who primarily know Murdoch as the controversial kingpin behind Fox News, The New York Post and The Wall Street Journal, Ink holds some surprises. It captures the blandly ruthless Australian businessman at a time when he was not yet taken seriously in an industry he later came to dominate. "Murdoch self-styled as an underdog in the same way that Trump self-mythologizes as an outsider of the establishment," Graham explains. "Obviously that's problematic and confusing, given both Murdoch and Trump's evident privilege and power."
Graham gets audiences invested in The Sun's ascent by not keeping Murdoch squarely in the spotlight. He's central to the plot but, in some ways, on the periphery. "I always thought the play would only work if you could subvert the audience's expectations about this gang of people led by Murdoch," Graham says. "So I styled it almost like a sports movie, where you see an underdog team at the bottom of the league full of all these misfits and rejects, and you find yourself surprised at your own desire to root for them as they start to find a secret way of playing that confuses the bigger teams."
Part of The Sun's game-changing tactic was going low with gusto. Big-font headlines; gossip; sensationalistic news about drugs, violence and celebrity excess; and the topless ladies on Page 3. Launched in the late '70s and finally retired in 2015, the Page 3 feature put the paper over the top in terms of readership. However, the decision to run the racy photos is depicted as contentious. Lamb has a reputation to protect, and Murdoch is almost adorably squeamish about crossing the line into semi-porn. Ink clearly shows how the hunger for circulation and ratings has a corrosive effect on morals. Is it the responsibility of the media to entertain or educate? Can it do both? And what happens when a paper becomes a propaganda tool for its owner?
Despite the success of Ink in London, Graham has been doing rewrites for its New York premiere, both to avoid alienating American audiences and to soften some of the parallels to today's headlines. "You can fall into the trap of trying to be too tarty, making it seem like the play is referencing Donald Trump or Brexit," Graham says. "I tried to not do that. Audiences are smart enough to be able to make the connections themselves. It wasn't about dragging the play farther forward in time. If I've done my job, the play will hold up whenever it's performed."
David Cote is a freelance theatre critic and reporter with bylines in Observer, American Theatre and What Should We Do?. Follow him on Twitter at @davidcote. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Jonny Lee Miller and Bertie Carvel in Ink. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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