Students of Rupert Murdoch may wonder why an 88-year-old multi-billionaire would devote his last years to destabilizing democracy, promoting division and thwarting efforts to slow climate change.
“There is no why,” newspaper editor Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller) says early in James Graham’s absorbing Ink, as part of a discussion with the young Murdoch about journalism’s five “W’s.” (Who, What, Where and When are the others.) “Sometimes shit just happens.”
Ever-so-timely, although ripped from headlines a half-century old, Ink chronicles The Sun‘s first year under Murdoch control, 1969-70.
Bertie Carvel, who won an Olivier Award for originating the role in London, plays the press baron to perfection as a stooped, uptight, shrewd and weirdly charismatic capitalist.
Ink isn’t polemical — you could even call it fair and balanced in depicting how Murdoch’s contagious competitiveness inspires his skeleton staff. His upstart Sun challenges the establishment Mirror in a race to the bottom in journalistic quality — and a race to the top in sales.
Lamb, whom Murdoch recruits to turn The Sun around, introduces mainstream ogling with the (now-retired) “Page 3 Girls” — photos of women with their breasts exposed. Lamb also serializes a real-life kidnapping that hits close to home, over the objections of his publisher. The stunt boosts circulation but ends tragically.
Director Rupert Goold (King Charles III) keeps the mood celebratory, at least in Act One, with impromptu dancing in the newsroom (swinging-’60s choreography by Lynne Page) and a delightful segment of editors dramatizing headlines. Set and costume designer Bunny Christie creates an evocative Fleet Street milieu, with metal desks piled vertically.
The top-notch ensemble includes David Wilson Barnes (playing The Sun‘s news editor) , Andrew Durand (a photographer and breathless actor who hawks the Sun on TV), Robert Stanton (Sun news editor) and Rana Roy (singer, dancer and cerebral Page 3 Girl).
The play is filled with memorable Murdoch-isms. He tells Lamb that by creating a popular paper for the masses, they’re unleashing a new, anti-establishment part of the British character. “Power replaces itself with itself,” Murdoch says. “And you can either stand on the other side of the window, tap tap tap, asking to come in, or we establish a new line of ascension.” And — “Do you know what I hear when I hear ‘codes,’ and ‘traditions?'” Murdoch asks. “I hear the rules as written by those who benefit from them, to stop others from treading on their turf.”
Murdoch evolves from a give-the-people-what-they-want disruptor to proscriptive populist. “People don’t always know what they want,” Murdoch tells Lamb. “They might think something is in their best interest, but you can in fact tell them it’s the other thing instead.”
As he prepares to leave for New York to buy a television network, Murdoch says he learned from Lamb that people like stories. Ink is a great story: lively, inventive and chilling.
Ink is at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.