James Graham has long seemed like the David Hare of his generation, that is the early Hare, a political playwright with an urgent gift for dissecting Britain’s institutions. They’ve both had a good look at the political machine, and particularly the Labour Party, in Hare’s Absence of War and Graham’s This House. And now Graham follows Hare’s footsteps in another direction: the press.
In 1985, Hare and Howard Brenton’s Pravda satirised the media in the Thatcher era, with Anthony Hopkins outstanding (and typically larger than life) as a monstrous South African newspaper tycoon not a million miles from one Rupert Murdoch.
Ink casts back a bit, to 1969, with Murdoch openly as its subject, at the moment when the Australian bought his way into the British newspaper world with his acquisition of failing broadsheet The Sun. The play charts a period of one year, from that purchase to the newspaper’s first birthday as a radically refashioned tabloid, with its editor Larry Lamb setting out to wrestle market leadership from The Mirror by plummeting down market.
It’s a sharply written, vibrantly theatrical, boisterously performed piece of work. And while it vividly recaptures the now extinct world of Fleet Street – with its adrenalized and testosterone-heavy mix of news hounds and hacks, idealism and cynicism, professional pride and boozy waggishness – the play’s depiction of the rise of a certain brand of populism and its immediately detrimental effect on British society makes it profoundly of the moment.
As Murdoch and Lamb (Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle) battle to win the hearts and minds of “the people”, by pandering to baser instincts for titillation, gossip and “free stuff”, all merely to increase sales, it’s a small leap only to the populist manipulation of today’s British voters, by self-serving politicians again aided by reactionary tabloid editors, which has led to Brexit.
This resonance simmers beneath the surface of a rollicking David and Goliath comedy, as the outsiders – the Australian and the Northerner – take on the Establishment press barons. There’s a touch of Citizen Kane in the way that Lamb rounds up staff for the new paper, stealing them from his old employer, The Mirror, and engaging them with vaudevillian vigour to throw established journalistic practice to the wind. And there’s a good dash of The Front Page in the ribald cynicism of that team, who Lamb has found in the assorted pubs, clubs and disreputable dens of the so-called Street of Shame.
Just as This House offered up the nuts and bolts of parliamentary life, Ink conjures to perfection a pre-digital, pre-PC print world, when more time was spent in the pub than at the typewriter, but the rituals involved in producing the end product were revered.
The Almeida’s artistic director Rupert Goold has a field day with all of this. He opens the play brilliantly, with the first meetings between the central pair, Lamb instructing Murdoch on the five W’s of journalism (pointedly losing interest in the most important, ‘why?’), as the young entrepreneur slinks around the stage like a well-dressed, reptilian Mephistopheles. Thereafter, Goold choreographs his uniformly excellent cast in constant motion up, down and around Bunny Christie’s set, a gravity-defying pyramid of office desks and typewriters. When launching themselves into the brash new world of the Sun headline, they break into song and dance. During a bravura recreation of the printing process, they seem to be handling molten metal.
Graham doesn’t take the easy course of presenting Murdoch as the sole villain. Legendary Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp is seen as a complacent, vainglorious man, no longer in touch with his readership. And Lamb and Murdoch share responsibility for their misadventures – the proprietor prioritising sales over quality journalism and taking the lead in the nascent battle with the unions, but balking at his paper’s lapses in taste, the editor taking responsibility for the dirty work.
Lamb slowly becomes the play’s sole central figure of the piece, played by Coyle as a recognisable, likeable Everyman who has very probably been sidelined because of his upbringing yet whose desire for respect and advancement will be his moral undoing. As well as his diabolical pact with Murdoch, he has an Oedipal tragedy at play, having to destroy his mentor Cudlipp in order to make his own success; and there’s pathos when he recognises that despite his skill as a journalist he will be most remembered for his introduction of naked women into the news pages.
Arguably the play suffers from Murdoch’s declining presence after the intermission; and the ferocious, addictive pace of the opening is slackened by an overlong section involving the real-life kidnap of a Sun executive’s wife, then Lamb’s agonised decision to introduce the ‘Page 3 girl’ – presented as key staging posts in the way the paper would go on to treat privacy and propriety, but overcooked.
That said, Graham provides multiple stings in his tail, with intimations of the destructive battle with the unions, the end of Fleet Street and the mogul’s move to America, television and global dominance. Even in those cheery, cheeky early days of The Sun, the writing was on the wall.
This review first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter