The British have a high regard for the state-of-the-nation play, that genre in which dramatists as different as David Hare, Alan Bennett, Richard Bean and Lucy Prebble take the temperature of the body politic in the distinguished tradition of George Bernard Shaw, John Osborne and Arnold Wesker.
“Ink,” a touted import from London written by James Graham that opened Wednesday at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, can be classified as a state-of-the-nation play even though the events it depicts take place in 1969. The drama examines a watershed moment when modern British journalism underwent a permanent sea change, though “revolution” may be a more accurate description.
Because Rupert Murdoch is the financial force and cultural instigator behind this insurgency, “Ink” is more than a state-of-the-nation play: It’s a state-of-the-English-speaking-world play. The transformation that Murdoch achieved with military-like determination completely rewrote the rules not just for the media but for commerce, politics and international relations. It’s no exaggeration to say that public life after Murdoch is vastly different from public life before him.
The urgency of this context is an inescapable part of a drama that is more impressive as a species of theatrical journalism than as a form of imaginative playwriting. Although it may seem hard to credit, the road to Brexit and Donald Trump was paved by what happened when Murdoch bought a lackluster broadsheet and turbocharged it into a leading tabloid.
The play begins at an expensive restaurant with Murdoch, a Pouilly-Fumé-drinking Mephistopheles (played with nasalized virtuosity by Bertie Carvel, who won an Olivier Award for his performance in London), engaged in an act of seduction. He’s trying to lure Larry Lamb (a pugnacious Jonny Lee Miller) to take over as editor of the Sun, Murdoch’s latest gamble, by preying on his feelings of class resentment.
The Australian interloper on Fleet Street is too brusquely mission-driven to care about social graces, but he’s a master psychologist. To convince Lamb to take a risk on a newspaper that has become an also-ran, Murdoch reminds this “Yorkshire born son of a blacksmith” of the way he was passed over for the top job at the Mirror despite his skills, instincts and tenacity.
Together they can stick it to the Oxbridge establishment by giving the people something they actually want to read. Lamb will run the show; Murdoch will foot the bills (within reason). A team is assembled, the powerful (including union bosses) are defied, and the pages of the Sun are resurrected with gossip, scandal and salaciousness of every stripe.
This is the story that “Ink” chronicles not as an anti-Murdoch screed but as a fanciful documentary staged with all the crackle of a newsstand rack of front-page screamers. The play is reminiscent of Prebble’s “Enron” in the dynamic way it translates a historical outline into scenes that sizzle and snap even when they don’t convince or belabor an obvious point.
Graham, who wrote the HBO and Channel 4 drama “Brexit,” tries to capture historical movements through the quirks of quietly consequential personalities. “Ink” isn’t a character drama in the psychological sense, but it does provide a showcase for some thrillingly flamboyant acting.
Carvel, who made a splash on both sides of the pond as Miss Trunchbull, the outsize villain in “Matilda: The Musical,” operates with chilling discretion as Murdoch, a mogul who never has to raise his twang to get his message across. His voice is like a low-humming sinus drill that can penetrate the inside of any skull. Cocooned in wealth, he gazes out at the world like a feudal lord who understands his vassals better than they understand themselves.
Miller’s Lamb, a white-collar professional with a boxer’s resolve, is the driving force of “Ink,” but his path is too monotonous to hold our imagination. He may lose his soul in carrying out Murdoch’s vision, but it’s Murdoch who experiences moral qualms as the Sun’s readership explodes.
Director Rupert Goold supplies “Ink” with the same choreographic swirl he gave to his short-lived (yet nonetheless impressive) Broadway production of “Enron.” The play is treated as though it might at any moment transmogrify into a musical.
The industrial presses dance through Jon Driscoll’s projections. Editors group themselves in drill formation as though they’re about to deliver a showstopper. A lounge singer (Rana Roy) accompanies the Sun staff as the paper gains momentum, her singing accelerating the fever pitch of the newsroom (and Goold’s staging).
The production’s vitality is unceasing, though the longer the play goes on, the clearer it becomes that something is missing. The basic story is stretched beyond our investment.
The Sun’s rise is unstoppable. Questionable ethical decision concerning scoops enable it to leapfrog much of the competition, and when Lamb greenlights a nude photo, even the once-unbeatable Mirror can’t keep up. In short, we’re coaxed into watching and (more disturbingly) rooting for something that’s not in doubt.
In his initial meeting with Murdoch, Lamb answers the question of what makes a good story by reviewing the five Ws of journalism: who, what, where, when and why. The fifth W may seem to be the most important, but “once you know ‘why’ something happened, the story’s over, it’s dead.”
A definitive explanation can, indeed, murder a good tale. But drama depends on discovery, the uncovering of what is not known or maybe even suspected. “Ink” largely revolves around Lamb, whose motivation Murdoch spells out for us at the beginning of the play.
There is the question of how far he will go. But by the time Joyce (a pungent Tara Summers), the woman’s editor with the killer instinct, has had enough of this unprincipled campaign, Larry is in too deep.
Murdoch isn’t one to argue with success, but the tabloid monster he’s created momentarily gives him pause. Like Milton in “Paradise Lost,” Graham develops affection for his Satan. Or maybe it’s just respect for someone who’s so much more clear-eyed about power, which was always the ultimate goal.
In the final scene, Murdoch advises Lamb to keep his eye “on that impressive bird in education, [Margaret] Thatcher.” The rest, of course, is history — a history still dangerously unfolding.