By JK Clarke
Early in the opening scene of James Graham’s latest play, Ink (now playing on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through July 7), small screens on the stage, stacked vertically with office desks and various detritus, begin to light up with the letter “W.” They’re meant to relate to the dialog between two men who are discussing the fundaments of journalism: the Five W’s (Who, What, Where, When and Why). But it doesn’t take much longer into the production before we begin to understand that the only “W” these “journalists” care about is the one that stands for “Winning.” Ink is the story of Rupert Murdoch’s purchase and re-purposing of the British tabloid, The Sun on his way to becoming the most powerful media figure on the planet. And while the details of the story may be salacious, they are not as shocking or revelatory as the playwright would have you believe. The real value of Ink is in seeing how it all began, and how close it came to not succeeding.
Had Ink been written/produced in the 1980s it might have been more compelling. Tabloids were going full speed and slander was considered part of the game; offended parties were paid off with a wave of the hand. But the advent of the Internet has made dirty journalism seem quaint. Ink’s value is as a historical and biographical examination of the most powerful media mogul in history. When we first meet Murdoch (Bertie Carvel, who plays the tycoon to great effect like a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr. Burns), it’s 1969 and he’s in process of convincing equally unscrupulous Larry Lamb (an excellent Jonny Lee Miller of Trainspotting fame) to be editor of The Sun, an unsuccessful paper he’s just purchased from The Daily Mirror, the most powerful newspaper organization in England. It doesn’t take much to convince him. Lamb has ambition and was never going to reach that level with the stodgy, traditional papers—he’s not part of the old boy’s club.
Murdoch tells Lamb to “make the paper what you want, I trust you.” (Though historical accounts note that Murdoch was the opposite of hands-off when it came to his enterprises.) But more importantly, Murdoch is going to “run my paper—like it’s a business . . . Not a public service. Not an educational programme. Not a church. Margins, bottom lines, the figures are what counts.”
Lamb is in lockstep with Murdoch and sets the goal of outselling the Mirror within 12 months—a wildly ambitious plan. But both are disruptors who will fly against the grain, break the rules and dismantle the status quo. As in any “zero to hero” story (though such tales aren’t usually this morally ambiguous), Lamb assembles a team of has-beens, never-wases and rejected souls who nonetheless know the industry inside and out. They drive toward more and more outrageous journalistic behavior and it pays off, but ultimately at the expense of everyone’s integrity.
Ink is blessed with a look and feel that give it a burst of newsroom energy without it being drab. Bunny Christie’s mountain of desk and office equipment start to look like a cityscape when accented by Neil Austin’s lighting. Jon Driscoll’s projections on screens that curve around the back of the set provide both that newspaper business spark (like the old spinning headlines in the movies) and valuable background information. But Goold’s staging is often awkward, with prolonged darkened breaks between scenes or odd dance numbers that didn’t make sense in the context of this play (and, in fact, it may have worked better as a musical). Furthermore, there were scenes that could have easily been trimmed or cut to reduced the overlong two hours and 45 minute run time.
The play is ultimately rescued by Graham’s sharp, crisp dialog performed by a terrific cast (particularly Andrew Durand as inexperienced, but eager and amusing photographer Beverley). Overall, it makes for a compelling and entertaining night out at the theater that may or may not teach you a thing or two.
Ink. Through July 7 at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). Two hours, 45 minutes with one intermission. www.inkbroadway.com
Photos: Joan Marcus