Just as London’s West End theaters are filling with American imports, Ink by English playwright James Graham, directed by celebrated English director Rupert Goold, is the latest British import to open on Broadway, Why wouldn’t theater become a global market? Everything else is. And nobody knew that better than Rupert Murdoch.
Ink ends with media mogul Murdoch’s announcement that, having left his native Australia to conquer the bigger world of London, he is now going to New York and beyond. We all know he did just that: “Planet Fox,” as the New York Times recently called Murdoch’s media empire, is now worldwide, destablizing governments and exerting influence to a terrifying degree, delivering the Brexit vote, electing prime ministers, and influencing American elections.
This long, talky drama — juiced up with fancy lighting (Neil Austin) and startling moments of choreography (Lynne Page) — begins with the five W’s of journalism, basic to getting all the facts of a story: Who, What, When, Where and Why. They seem like a reasonable structure for a review.
Who: Larry Lamb (played by Jonny Lee Miller, with his characteristic frown and coiled intensity) is desperate to get back in the game. Rupert Murdoch (played by Bertie Carvel, whose hunched shoulders telegraph both secrecy and readiness to pounce) hires him to edit The Sun. It was Larry Lamb who essentially invented “fake news” as a product for sale. And sell it he did.
What: The Sun is the newspaper that became London’s infamously vulgar tabloid, with its screaming headlines and scandal-mongering. Murdoch’s challenge to Lamb was to outsell The Mirror, London’s staid paper that still hewed to traditional journalistic values. Lamb, discovering depths of ruthlessness in himself — we watch this happen over the course of the play — drives The Sun over the top, and all his sub-editors, whose moral standards were questionable to start with, quit.
Where: Fleet Street, the location of London’s many newspaper headquarters. There are British aspects to this play that may sail over the heads of an American audience: We have our own meshuggaas (the one thing that may resist globalization) that is not theirs, and we didn’t get up every morning to The Sun’s headlines.
Why: Motive. It’s what we always wait for, the consolation that would make random heinous acts intelligible. Most superficially, the “why” of Ink is obvious: crass greed, crass power. Beneath that lies the tangled psychology of competition and defensiveness. Here’s how the Rupert Murdoch character answers “Why?”:
There is no why, you’ve killed “why,” Larry, just as you’d hoped to. “Why” was how they controlled things, wasn’t it? Churches. Schools. Trade unions! Newspapers. Convincing everyone there is an overarching “idea.” Well. Why is gone now. We’re free to just ask Who do you wanna screw? What do you wanna buy? Where do you wanna go? When do you wanna go there? People love it.
And maybe we do.
If you want to feel a tug at your nostalgic heartstrings, a recollection of how it was, here’s Beatrice Warde’s famous 1932 broadside, “This Is a Printing Office”:
This is a printing office
Crossroads of civilization
Refuge of all the arts against the ravages of time
Armoury of fearless truth against whispering rumour
Incessant trumpet of trade.
From this place words may fly abroad,
not to perish on waves of sound,
not to vary with the writer’s hand
but fixed in time having been verified in proof.
Friend, you stand on sacred ground …
This is a printing office.