Almeida, London – until 5 August 2017
In the world of journalism, the story is everything. This lesson is drilled into us time and time again over the course of Ink, James Graham’s latest play, which charts Rupert Murdoch’s 1969 acquisition and rebranding of The Sun, which would permanently change the landscape of British journalism.
Graham wisely chooses not to moralise, but lets the story do the talking. In the first act we see Murdoch bring aboard Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle), who assembles his crack team in a stylised sequence straight out of a Guy Ritchie heist movie. From there it’s a frantic scramble to get the paper ready for its first edition and become a credible threat to The Mirror, their main rivals. As they slowly decide to adopt the audacious approach to journalism that would be their hallmark, they drill down to work out exactly what populism is, and how to show it on their pages.
All of this is presided over by Bertie Carvel’s quietly intense Murdoch. Carvel portrays him as a man who knows how to command attention, but doesn’t like to be the focus of it. In scenes with Lamb or when challenged by a TV interviewer about the morals of journalism, he passionately defends the press’ right to flout authority and seek out truth.
Things take a darker turn in the second act as the real-life abduction of Muriel McKay, the wife of Murdoch’s deputy chairman, plays out both in the offices and on the front pages of The Sun, and raises serious questions about the impact of journalism on the outside world. In their bid to outshine The Mirror, nothing is sacred, and we see the birth of Page 3 as well as the genuine shockwaves it causes, even to Murdoch himself.
As a slice of history, it makes for fascinating viewing, and it’s deftly presented. The action takes place in the shadow of Bunny Christie’s enormous tower of desks and ink-splattered filing cabinets, driving home the message that tabloid journalism is akin to war. Rupert Goold directs the action with a fast pace that feels appropriate to Fleet Street.
Graham has seemingly chosen to exercise a lighter touch here, presenting the sequence of events as they unfolded, with added dramatic flourish. This gives the play the feel of a biopic or a documentary, which serves its fascinating source material well, but at the cost of minimising its author’s voice. Perhaps it’s for the best. The story, after all, is everything.