Ink, a play by James Graham, tells the compelling story of the first year of Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of The Sun newspaper in 1969. Initially performed in London’s West End in 2017, this performance from the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild by directors Robert Bell and Rebecca Kemp takes place in the Little Theatre, buried within the Adelaide University Cloisters. This seems prescient, considering Murdoch’s recent retirement and the fact that in his early career, he took over running The News, a small Adelaide newspaper.
The play opens mid-conversation. Murdoch (convincingly played by Joshua Coldwell) is wooing his potential editor, Larry Lamb (credibly played by Bart Csorba). The period is captured flawlessly. From Murdoch’s grey suit, the smoking and the period typewriters, the space has been transformed into a convincing time warp. Although the audience seating is in a conventional arena style, the set design has made complete use of the space. Actors are able to move between the audience and two levels on stage. The upper-level rear wall is decorated with stylised Sun front page imagery, while the lower level is straight from the basement of a dirty printing press room.
For those unaware of the story, Murdoch purchased the ailing Sun newspaper from the Mirror Group, the owners of several British newspapers, including Britain’s biggest-selling paper, The Mirror. With sale conditions including no break in circulation and having only been left a skeleton staff, the idea of having the newspaper running within a month or so seems impossible.
At the time, Murdoch was seen as a colonial upstart. The chairman of the Mirror Group, Hugh Cudlipp (Steve Marvanek), takes great delight in feeling sure that Murdoch would fail in this project. However, Murdoch’s resolve to succeed means that he convinces Lamb to take on the role of editor, giving him complete control.
The characters in a frozen state of animation successfully portray moments of history. The focus shifts back and forth between the tableaux, giving a real sense of depth to the story. The cosy relationship between the political and religious parties and the press is snapshotted. As much as Murdoch wanted to disrupt this status quo, he was also determined to break the union stranglehold on the business.
Murdoch takes a back seat and allows Lamb to gather a crew of cast-offs and outcasts. There are sports reporters, weather and news reporters, a woman’s editor and an inexperienced photographer named Beverly (a boy played humorously by young actor Charlie Milne). As the crew formed, the primarily middle-aged men performed a ritual mating dance. A highlight for many in the audience.
Murdoch had set a challenge; with the Sun’s circulation currently well under one million a day versus the Mirror’s five, could Lamb equal the circulation numbers within the first year? Initially, the idea was to copy from the Mirror and slightly change it. The logo, for example, is just a copy of the Mirror’s white writing on a red rectangle, but in italics. However, it was encouraging watching the team come together and having brainstorming sessions, which came to what the readers wanted – free stuff, sports and sex.
It’s a long story and one that is effectively told in chapters. As we break for a short interval, the paper is well on the way to becoming successful. Murdoch pops up for the obligatory promotions but leaves most of the heavy lifting to Lamb.
The final chapters take a much darker turn. Muriel McKay (Kate Anolak), the wife of the chief editor Sir Alick McKay (Joh Hartog), is kidnapped and held for ransom. It was a case of mistaken identity as the real target was Anna Murdoch (Sahra Cresshull), who was actually in Australia at the time. This was the first case of its kind in Britain. Despite police advice, the Sun ran five days of coverage on the case. It is speculated that the media attention panicked the kidnappers into killing Muriel, although her body has never been found.
It was a moment to reflect on how media reports crime and what if anything, has changed in the last fifty years.
Towards the end of the first year, the circulation gap between the Sun and the Mirror is closing. Desperate to attract the final numbers, Lamb comes up with the idea of a page-three girl. Unbeknownst to Murdoch, he secretly convinces a regular model, Stephanie Rahn (played by Sarika Young), to pose naked. The publication of the edition broke the circulation records but caused an enormous backlash from everyone, including Mary Whitehouse. Despite his misgivings, Murdoch is pleased with the circulation increase.
Once again, we are left with a philosophical question of whether morals matter more than money in an ideal capitalist world.
Overall, the production was very slick and entertaining. It captured the spirit of the times and the camaraderie and enthusiasm that allows a venture such as this to grow. The performers, many whom had multiple roles, were all realistically portrayed without descending into caricature. The clothing and set were appropriate to the era and helped build a convincing picture. The use of the multiple stage areas, including the lighting, was inspiring. The humour was spontaneous and natural. The storyline was captivating. It left me with a grudging admiration for Murdoch.
This is a lively production, telling an interesting story in an equally interesting and entertaining way. Despite the 3-hour length, it keeps the attention the whole time. It’s a real page turner so to speak.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The reviewer attended the opening night on 12th October
Thursday 12 October, 7.30pm
Friday 13 October, 7:30pm
Saturday 14 October, 7:30pm
Sunday 15 October, 4pm Matinée
Thursday 19 October, 7:30pm
Friday 20 October, 7:30pm
Saturday 21 October, 7:30pm
Sunday 22 October, 4pm Matinée
Venue: Little Theatre
Victoria Drive (Gate 10), The Cloisters, The University of Adelaide