Ink at the Almeida Theatre
Rupert Murdoch is a tumour in the breast of democracy. He wields a disproportionate amount of power, acting – up until very recently – as political kingmaker in the UK. Yet in James Graham’s Ink Murdoch isn’t a monstrous media mogul. He is, rather, a catalyst for change, lifting the lid on Pandora’s Box to have a peak. And he’s not even the focus of the play. No, that honour goes to editor Larry Lamb, who strikes what turns out to be a rather Faustian bargain with the Aussie billionaire.
Ink tracks just one year in The Sun’s life, from its tabloid rebirth to the moment when it finally eclipsed main rival the Daily Mirror. Murdoch and Lamb are painted as almost anti-establishment figures at the start, striving to produce a paper “for the people”. This obsession with the “normal” guy and gal on the street patronises as much as it pleases, subtly suggesting that anything too intellectual is the preserve of the “elite”. Combine that with Lamb’s desperate need to win – Richard Coyle is fantastic at capturing a man of utter conviction whose beliefs are rapidly unravelling – and we have the disintegration of not only a once respectable paper, but an entire profession.
Bunny Christie’s set is wonderful, a towering curio cabinet of a long gone Fleet Street, set in front of an electronic printing press flashing up front pages and column inches. Rupert Goold’s direction is less sure-footed; the production takes a while to settle into its madcap energy, meaning some moments, like the club singer-scored “meet the team” scene, just come across as naff.
On one hand Graham should be praised for creating a relatively balanced portrayal of a figure it would be all too easy to assassinate – something aided by a sharp, hunched Bertie Carvel, who excels at playing charming shits. Yet Murdoch presides over an empire of hate, his various outlets aggressively fanning the flames of fear. It doesn’t feel enough to have him as the oddly prudish devil on Larry Lamb’s shoulder.
Even taken on its own terms – for Murdoch really isn’t the main character – Ink misses opportunities. At its best the play probes the tyranny of the majority, ie what it means when an ostensibly “bad thing” is so damn popular (you don’t have to work hard to pull out the Brexit/Trump parallels). However, it fails to engage with The Sun’s toxic political legacy, instead focusing on the commodification of trauma and its seismic shift towards Page 3. Worthy and dramatic topics, indeed, but still a slight disappointment given Graham’s standing as his generation’s premier political playwright.
Photo: Marc Brenner
Ink is at the Almeida Theatre from 17th June until 5th August 2017. For further information or to book visit here.