On Wednesday, April 24th, the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre will host the opening night of its premier British transplant and 2018 toast of the West End, Ink, by Olivier Award-winning playwright James Graham. As luck would have it, I managed to score a ticket last week for a preview performance and all I can think about since is, “Am I robbing some other poor soul of this magnificent experience if I go to see it again?”
Ink took London by a storm in 2017 with a limited run at the Almeida Theatre (and later an extended run at the Duke of York’s Theatre) under the watchful eye and skillful direction of Rupert Goold. A powerhouse in his own right, Goold has brought more to the States than just his sharp interpretations, his singular scenic designer Bunny Christie’s brilliance, and his uncanny ability to meld comedy and drama in a way that leaves you ruminating for days. He brought … Bertie Carvel.
Carvel has the unenviable (is it really?) task of bringing Ink’s central figure to life: Rupert Murdoch. And yet he does so with such effortless aplomb it leaves you both disturbed and enraptured.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Ink is a play about our time set back in time, and tells the story of Rupert Murdoch and the beginning of what would become his international media empire. Set in 1969, the audience is introduced to a young 30-something Murdoch without influence, but cash-rich and ready to make his mark outside of his father’s social circle back in Australia. He has the presence of mind to buy a small, struggling subsidiary newspaper off of the owner of the largest, most successful newspaper in British history, The Daily Mirror.
The fledgling offshoot is sold with glee and seen in the eyes of the Mirror’s magnate Hugh Cudlipp (astutely performed by Michael Siberry) as a win-win. In Cudlipp’s mind, there was no way Murdoch could ever pose a threat to his paper’s legacy, brand and popularity — certainly not with an unremarkable rag known as The Sun.
Murdoch, aware of this mindset, is way ahead of him. Enticing a frustrated mid-card rogue editor to come on board as the Editorial Manager before the keys to the office are even well in-hand, Murdoch stokes the fire of Larry Lamb’s ambition and directs him to do whatever it takes to put The Sun on top within a year. Lamb (played to perfection by Jonny Lee Miller) toys at refusing his offer, only to be eventually sucked into a world that would flourish under his guidance and change the landscape of journalism for the next 50 years.
Despite Murdoch being the household name today, it is Miller’s Lamb that takes the spotlight for the majority of the tale. From the gathering of editors, photographers and union print shop workers to the final decision to push the team past their limit of “how far is too far,” Lamb’s the leader of the brigade determining how to give the people what they want even if they won’t admit they want it.
From the opening volley of quick-witted dialogue between Murdoch and Lamb, the script sets the tone for the evening off just right. And the message is loud and clear: This story is true. This story is vulgar. This story will make you laugh and gasp and learn. And sometimes, all at once.
An added bonus of this script is the audience doesn’t just get a lesson in how Murdoch set off on his path to media mogul-dom. They also get a crash-course in the behind-the-scenes of newspaper management, including the brainstorming of copy and the manipulation of headlines; the precarious political tightrope-walking necessary when working with a union; and an intricate sequence of how the proverbial sausage is made when a page of copy moves from the reporter to the print shop.
As a sidenote: I must confess the stylized montage of how creating a single printed page was accomplished in 1969 took me back to my high school journalism courses on the history of print and age of analog workshops. I only caught a tiny glimpse of that world myself in college when my small university’s newspaper used large pasteboards to design the layout of each page with removable blocks of text before moving on to the next stage — similar to the giant pasteboards wielded by the deputy editor Bernard Shrimsley (played beautifully by Robert Stanton) throughout the play. I’ve also heard my fair share of hard time tales in the print shop from older generations of production staff who wore shorts in the summer to help combat the heat from the metal and steam.
With an ensemble cast that includes a healthy mix of actors from across the globe who wield their British accents so deftly you’d have to be a formidable linguist to determine who’s actually an American, Englishman or Australian, the energy of the first act pulls in the audience so completely, the second act almost feels like an expertly timed gut-punch from a misleading frenemy.
It’s in the play’s second act where we get to the crux of our Faustian tale. Lamb’s descent into alienating all the members of his team, while trading in his values and reputation for the finish line of Murdoch’s goal in topping The Mirror leaves us questioning our own ethics and moral compass at times. Lamb’s assertion that publishing the details of a kidnap victim’s letter to her husband would give none of the team pause if they didn’t personally know the victim is a salient point. He’s right to call out their hypocrisy. Yet, it no less leaves a salty taste in our mouths to see the kidnap victim’s name in bold letters cast aside in a nearby trash can because it isn’t considered newsworthy enough to use in a front page headline.
The tension of the second act builds on the anticipation of how close Lamb will walk to the edge of the cliff before diving off. And can we see he dived or was he pushed? Murdoch is careful to place himself in the canon of deniability by explicitly stating the topics of what he does and does not care for, while at the same time never stepping in to stay the hands of Lamb’s direction. He reaps the benefits of crossing the line and changing the game, but bears none of the responsibility as implied in his oft-repeated line in the last scene, “You taught me that.”
Ink fancies itself as a play that doesn’t pick sides or pass judgment. Although it’s fair to say Graham leaves the judging up to the audience, the tale is clearly crafted to expose the unsavory details of how our modern media developed into the state it is today. No matter how neutral Ink’s creative team wishes to declare themselves to be, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the indictment of our current news media machine.
Again, Ink is a play about our time set back in time. The audience walks away feeling both light with laughter and heavy with historical perspective. From casting to sound design to scenic design to directing, there is not one piece of this British import that doesn’t come together magnificently to justify its extended run announcement before it even began previews on April 2nd. Like Murdoch, Graham’s play is a contender. Proven on the boards in the UK, and eagerly awaiting your presence and praise in the US. I suggest you see it for yourself before I no longer have second thoughts about robbing some poor soul of the experience by seeing it again.
Ink runs through June 16 at the Manhattan Theatre Club at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.