james debate
james debate

Monday 14 August 2017

Directed by Rupert Goold
Written by James Graham
Starring Bertie Carvel, Richard Coyle
Theatre Almeida / Duke of York

ink rupert murdoch the sun almeida west end james graham this house

When you're writing a play about politics, there is a danger in turning your script into a soapbox. Many writers give in to this temptation, using the opportunity to press an obvious personal agenda in a way that's often naked and self-serving. But audiences don't go to the theatre to watch a cartoon. Excessive pandering can be a turn off, even where I actually agree with the opinion being expressed.

So you can imagine that when a play is dealing with a particularly prominent and controversial figure, that danger is even greater. Rupert Murdoch is undoubtedly one such figure, and it would have been entirely too easy to pander to the liberal London theatre crowd by portraying the man as some kind of monster. Murdoch has spent a career building the vast media empire News Corporation, and in doing so has earned himself no small share of revulsion for ethically questionable activities like phone-hacking, fake news, and a troubling influence over British politicians. Deserved though the public's general animosity may be, if I had walked into this theatre and spent 3 hours watching some anti-Murdoch circlejerk, I'd have been disappointed. Fortunately, James Graham is far too deft a writer to take such an obvious approach to this story.

Anyone who has seen This House, probably Graham's most famous work, will know roughly what to expect. Graham has shown himself to be a playwright singularly capable of bringing dry subjects as politics to life in a way that's both crowd-pleasing and insightful, whilst never feeling preachy. With Ink, Graham delivers yet again, with a production that's as energetic and funny as anything you will see this year.

The focus is on Murdoch's early years in the UK, his acquisition of the struggling The Sun newspaper, and the tumultuous road to turning it into the biggest paper in the country. At most the script only lightly alludes to his future controversies and political ambitions. Instead Murdoch is portrayed as an outsider, an irreverent upstart looking to shake up the old boys' club in the journalistic industry, and whose single-mindedness and ruthless business instincts allow him to succeed.

Murdoch is certainly not portrayed as some kind of saint; he's unashamedly arrogant and frequently puts his ethical views secondary to his ambitions, but Graham finds the kernel of humanity that motivates this drive, and presents us with an individual that is neither likeable nor detestable, but simply is. Taking such an approach is a wise decision by the writer, presenting a story that's less controversial, and yet still cuts to the core of what makes Rupert Murdoch so notable. It's also a far more entertaining story than what might otherwise have been. True to form, Graham packs his script full of wit, pithy observations, ostentatious montages... this is rock and roll politics with the tone and style to match.

Equally important to Ink's success is the quality of the performances, most notably Bertie Carvel whose Murdoch portrayal leaves an indelible impression. More than simply some likeness or impression, Carvel's performance is an entirely distinct creation, yet captures such an essence of the character that it becomes impossible to separate the two in the mind. Every now and then you see a portrayal so captivating that it replaces your mental image of that person. Carvel has achieved that here, and will surely be a contender for the Oliviers.

The combination of strong script, memorable acting and adventurous production make this an easy recommendation. This is an excellent play, possibly the best in what has been a very strong year for theatre so far. Bertie Carvel is sure to be decorated for his performance, while James Graham further establishes himself as unequalled in political storytelling. Ink is now set to transfer to the West End. Go get yourself some tickets.

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