Like David Hare before him, playwright James Graham — whose play “Privacy” ran Off Broadway last season with Daniel Radcliffe — goes digging for drama in Britain’s national institutions. “Ink” does for this country’s popular press what Graham’s “This House” did for parliamentary procedure, but it’s more than a mere explainer. In charting the rise of The Sun and that of its owner Rupert Murdoch, Graham harks back to a bygone era — both for the press and for Britain. It makes for a ripping yarn, motored by a majestic performance from Bertie Carvel as the media mogul himself.
The Sun has long been the lodestar of the British press. At its peak, Murdoch’s red-top tabloid reached almost 4 million readers, exerting tremendous influence over popular opinion. After one election, its front page claimed victory: “It’s the Sun Wot Won It.” For six decades, for better or worse, it has been at the very heart of British life. Its regular features are as familiar as friends, its headlines scored into the collective psyche. Love it or loathe it, there’s no ignoring it.
“Ink” is, essentially, its origin myth. Set in 1969, Graham’s play whips through its first year under Murdoch’s ownership. Having bought the struggling broadsheet (daily circulation 50,000) for a song, the young Australian upstart seeks to reinvent it wholesale. He wants a paper people want to read — a tabloid to take on the market leader, Hugh Cudlipp’s Daily Mirror, circulation 4.7 million. Hiring a former Cudlipp staffer, a disillusioned northerner named Larry Lamb, as his first editor, Murdoch lays down a challenge: Outsell the Mirror in a year.
If Lamb rises to that challenge, Graham’s question is at what cost. His title suggests that changes tend to be permanent, and while Fleet Street (if not Britain as a whole) is crying out for the sort of modernization Murdoch demands, we know where this story ends, 60 years later — a hollowed-out news media, a phone hacking scandal, a global empire and, yes, a broken Britain. Murdoch’s career coincides with the rise and fall of market-led neoliberalism. He and Lamb, in their different ways and for different reasons, are driven by sales figures above everything else, and Graham takes us on a race to the bottom, via plagarism, scandal and scantily-clad women.
“Ink” plays a nifty game. Turning the tabloid’s tactics back on its own story, Graham tells us a tale that’s almost too good to be true. It plays out like a classic sports story: Boss picks his team of misfits, trains them up, and takes on the champs. It even comes with montage sequences, as the paper takes shape and headlines stack up. Sometimes, it’s a mob flick with Murdoch wining and dining Lamb like an old Mafioso; sometimes a heist movie, a smash and grab raid on the British establishment. That can seem superficial, a glib gloss on history, but it’s told with such self-awareness that we bring our own skepticism. We’re being sold a story.
The five Ws of journalism — who, what, where, when, why — sit on Bunnie Christie’s set as a constant reminder, and both Graham’s play and director Rupert Goold’s production adhere to them beautifully. Christie conjures a lost London, and Fleet Street in particular. There’s a whisky bottle on every desk, a fug of smoke in the air and not a screen to be seen. Her mound of heavy metal desks, paper strewn everywhere, suggests the industry’s ramshackle hierarchy, and, at one point, Graham even takes us downstairs to the presses and plates that forge each new edition day after day: A reminder that journalism was physical before it went digital.
Graham goes to town with the “who.” Justin Salinger plays a salt-of-the-earth news editor, wily and dogged, but always game for a laugh. So is Tim Steed’s fastidious and high-minded deputy editor, who sashays around like a pinstriped tailor, while Sophie Stanton’s gruff women’s editor, cigarette in hand, foists girls off to glamour shoots with Jack Holden’s preening photographer. That they all co-exist, even collaborate, so effortlessly conjures the bygone culture of journalism: cheeky, cynical, self-aware. Coyle’s Lamb, the conscience of the piece, is right in their midst.
Murdoch, on the other hand, always stands out. Bertie Carvel, the shapeshifting actor who originated the demon headmistress Miss Trunchbull in “Matilda,” is truly spectacular in the role. He seems somehow to rearrange his face to match the young Murdoch’s, then wrings psychology out of that. His eyes squeeze into a squint that seems to scrutinize, even to sneer at, everyone and everything, while keeping him entirely inscrutable. He is, at all times, enigmatic, and Carvel’s portrayal stokes the myth of Murdoch as much as it reveals the man. He’s full of contradictions: squarely imposing yet oddly demure; screaming his head off then avoiding eye contact. His standards are exacting, even prudish, yet they’re abandoned as soon as the numbers stack up.
It’s at the dinner table that we learn most about him. Sat opposite Coyle’s Lamb, he hunches over his plate and breaks every bit of etiquette going. Murdoch talks as he chews, gulps wine down his throat and jabs the air with his knife to emphasize a point. His napkin’s tucked into his collar, his elbow’s on the table, yet he’ll still flick a fleck of food off a crisp white tablecloth, scrupulous and uncouth in equal measure. When Lamb seems to out-order him, he swaps his steak for a lobster. It’s all brilliantly brash, an emblem of the Australian’s loathing for old establishment orders — and the Fleet Street old guard, led by David Schofield’s stuffily moralistic Cudlipp, is nothing if not that.
The irony, of course, is that Murdoch will go on to remake it all. He will buy up the Times of London and anoint future prime ministers. Everything comes with a lick of dramatic irony and an eye on the future. When he talks of buying a TV network across the pond, we know just how that plays out — and that may be enough to get “Ink” to Broadway.