Ink recounts how Rupert Murdoch, newly arrived in London from Australia in 1969, bought the Sun, “a stuck-up broadsheet that…never once made a profit,” and in a year’s time made it a wildly popular populist tabloid, having turned “ugly into an art form,” as a character says in James Graham’s play. The character, Larry Lamb (portrayed by Jonny Lee Miller), the editor Murdoch hired, is talking about the ugly look of the paper, but the description fits the contents as well.
“You might think it’s all harmless — celebrities and bonking,” the head of the rival Mirror says to Lamb in the play. “Don’t you know how Rome fell?”
Seven years later, Murdoch moved to New York and did much the same thing to the New York Post. The Post, founded by Alexander Hamilton as a respectable broadsheet in 1801, had by the 1970s become a thoughtful liberal daily featuring the most widely read columnists in the city. Under Murdoch, it turned into what Columbia Journalism Review called “a source for evil,” and a cacophony of screaming headlines like “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” The Australian-born media mogul’s brand of right-wing populism that took root in America via the Post branched out throughout his adopted country, finding its fuller and fulsome expression in his creation of Fox News.
Those of us who see Rupert Murdoch as a pernicious influence not just on American journalism but on this nation’s politics and society might have trouble completely embracing Ink, despite flashy direction by Rupert Goold and solid acting by Miller (star of TV’s Elementary), Bernie Carvel (Tony nominee for the role of Miss Trunchbull in Matilda) as Murdoch, and a large ensemble cast. This is not to say Ink is a paean to Murdoch. Indeed, it doesn’t even primarily focus on him.
The focus is on Lamb, the son of a blacksmith whose career as a journalist had reached a plateau, the play implies, because of his working class origins. Murdoch plays on his resentment towards the toffs of Fleet Street to lure him into editing the newly-bought Sun under trying circumstances – too few staff, too little resources, and too little time to put together the first revamped issue. Murdoch also gives him a challenge with impossible odds – to beat out the most popular British daily The Mirror, which has almost ten times the circulation.
Much of Act I is Lamb prowling the bars of Fleet Street, with colorful names like The Printer’s Devil and The Stab in the Back, to recruit a staff besotted both with journalism and drink. He gathers the new hires and conducts a brain-storming session to discover what “Normal People” really want. After some prodding, one admits he likes to win, another to get free stuff, a third sex.
“Win. Free. Love.” Lamb announces. “Every time, we get these three words onto the front page of our paper, you all get a bonus. “
The set-up is designed to have the audience root for these scrappy underdogs and take delight in their sticking it to the Man. The paper’s mission, Lamb tells the staff, is to give “normal folk the ammunition to laugh at their so-called betters. We punch up, never down.” But that doesn’t just mean upturning tradition; it means violating privacy, omitting explanations of important issues, and ignoring journalistic ethics. When a television interviewer in the play labels the new Sun “sleazy and downmarket” Murdoch disagrees. “I think it’s fun, and I don’t like this term ‘downmarket.’ Who is the arbiter of what is up and what is down? Is it you?”
It’s only in Act II that we’re shown two examples of the downside of the paper’s “race to the bottom,” both of them based on true stories. The most memorable is the series of events after the kidnapping of the wife of Sir Alick McKay, Rupert Murdoch’s deputy. The police ask to keep it private to protect her safety. The Sun does not listen. To Lamb, this is a Heaven-sent scoop, an opportunity to boost circulation. A climactic moment occurs when nobody on staff will prep the metal plate for the front page that reprints the handwritten plea her kidnappers forced her to write. So Lamb takes the mallet himself and slams it, the ink from the plate spraying and staining his face and his clothes – the stain a vivid metaphor reproduced in a video of encroaching black on the backdrop.
Murdoch didn’t invent “the ‘populist’ tabloid, “ Lamb says at one point in the play. With Lamb’s help, he just took it further. Ink doesn’t go far enough in exploring or explaining how and why and what it means. The play is a missed opportunity to look with some nuance at the exasperating conundrum of populism, which has been taking hold to a frightening degree around the world. On the one hand, people look at the growing inequity in wealth and power with justifiable dismay, and understandably find the superior attitude of some elites to be insufferable. On the other hand, how is the solution hate, the breakdown of civility and a mob mentality? The play only lightly touches on this dichotomy. The interviewer complains of how The Sun is making discourse “ruder and coarser,” and Murdoch answers that it’s instead “less reverential” of the “Establishment.”
Some will see Graham’s superficial retelling of the first year of The Sun under Murdoch as fair and balanced. But the approach reminds me a little of Lucky Guy, a play written by Nora Ephron and produced posthumously in a 2013 production that marked the Broadway debut of Tom Hanks, who was portraying crime columnist Mike McAlary of the Daily News. For all of Ephron’s feminist credentials, the play offered a retrograde view of women. This might have been baffling if it were not clear that Lucky Guy was an attempt to re-create the legendary (and largely imaginary) camaraderie of tough-guy reporters — the kind of blinkered nostalgia and self-mythologizing that apparently afflict journalists everywhere. Ink’s nostalgia for the ink-stained wretches of yore extends even to Bunny Christie’s set, which I suppose is meant to represent clutter – towers of half a dozen old metal desks stacked one upon the other. (This is now the THIRD play I’ve seen this month that relies on old office furniture – the others were both aggressively avant-garde, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, and The One Who Disappeared. Is there a special furniture clearing-house that caters to with-it theater directors and designers?)
I have worked on the staffs of several “tabloids” — both New York Newsday and the Daily News. I even wrote freelance for the New York Post. I would like to explain the concrete difference between a tabloid and a broadsheet. It’s the way the paper is folded.
A broadsheet like the New York Times is one huge sheet folded in half, to make four pages. Just take that same sheet, fold it in half again, and rotate it 45 degrees and it’s a tabloid. That’s it.
This lesson, in the digital age, feels irrelevant, and so does Ink.
Ink is on stage at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater (261 W 47th Street, between Broadway and Eight Avenue, New York, NY 10036) through June 23, 2019
Tickets and details
Ink by James Graham . Directed by Rupert Goold . Choreographer & Movement Director: Lynne Page; Associate Choreographer: Gemma Payne . Scenic and costume design by Bunny Christie, lighting design by Neil Austin, sound design by Adam Cork; projection design by Jon Driscoll; Hair and Wig Design by Campbell Young Associates; Makeup design by Campbell Young Associates; . Featuring Bertie Carvel, Jonny Lee Miller, David Wilson Barnes, Bill Buell, Andrew Durand, Eden Marryshow, Colin McPhillamy, Erin Neufer, Kevin Pariseau, Rana Roy, Michael Siberry, Robert Stanton, Tara Summers, Ian Bedford, William Connell, Christopher McHale, Jessica Naimy, Daniel Yearwood. Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.