I didn’t actually wear my Don’t Buy the Sun badge to the Almeida. I did consider it, but to be honest it’s lost somewhere in the crevices of my desk.
James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida focuses on the takeover of the Sun by Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel,) and its first year in print under editor Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle.) Graham makes the case that the theatre can be a medium where plot is the driving force; not necessarily character or argument – although there’s plenty of that too. And there’s a lot of plot, it turns out. A near three-hour run time races past, as we move – much like the journalists – from story to story, beat to beat. We career from side-plot to side-plot, from the introduction of glamour models and the television listings, to the abduction of the wife of one of the writers. All the while the rivalry with the Mirror bubbles underneath, the Sun chasing its readership becoming a strand that runs the whole tapestry of plot.
Rupert Goold’s production seemed to me to stage it like a musical. Levels of high excitement give way to movement – no, choreography – and vocalising. We flash in and out of realism; there’s a layer of glamour, and panache to the production. It doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. I’m also tempted to call it tabloid theatre, but that has unfair connotations. What I’m getting at is there’s a real element of performance about it; like The Treatment, which preceded it in the space, it’s a ‘play’ at the Almeida. There’s a proper set and blackouts and even a curtain before it starts.
The company here is really strong, Coyle barely leaves the stage as Lamb and (I imagine if you’re not me) has you rooting for the Sun to succeed. He conveys a sense of ambition and opportunities denied to him for so long – it’s no wonder he runs with Murdoch, and is willing to do anything to prove everyone wrong. Sophie Stanton (soooo good as Falstaff in the Donmar’s Henry IV last year) plays the Geordie Joyce Hopkirk, the women’s editor, with humour but also a sharp seriousness in the final scenes as the stakes climb up. There’s a slightly frantic, restless energy to all of them; you completely get why these people were willing to leave their steady jobs and chance a car crash with The Sun. They get off on the risk and the rush of it all.
And then, as the second-coming of Satan himself, is Bertie Carvel as Rupert Murdoch. When the light hits him in those opening moments, all hunched shoulders and Aussie drawl, I got goosebumps. There’s a manner and even an affectedness to the performance that in the hands of a lesser actor would be unwatchable, but Carvel somehow makes it completely believable. With him, you see the gesture but you don’t see the joins. There’s a terrible charisma to him; whenever he was offstage I couldn’t help but think “when’s Murdoch coming back” WHICH IS A SENTENCE I NEVER THOUGH WOULD PASS THROUGH MY MIND.
The play itself is not so blunt as to take a metaphorical baseball bat to Rupert Murdoch (note: I am very interested in seeing that play.) Instead, we see exactly what Larry Lamb was up to; all his tactics, all his decisions, all his games. Murdoch is the operator on the sidelines, making a key suggestion every now and again, setting up the plan for Lamb to execute. One of the really interesting facets of the play is how it makes Murdoch a cautious figure, not a trait I’d associate with him. It is Lamb who is pushing the groundbreaking stuff, the things that would characterise The Sun; Murdoch is a far more conservative figure.
There’s a point in the play when someone asks Lamb “How’s the North.” For some reason, this was funny to the Almeida audience who fell about laughing. Lamb responds with “The weather’s colder but the people are warmer.” I’m fairly certain I’m the only one who laughed. And it got me thinking about the ideas of class in the play; Lamb and (most of) the team he assembles are all working class. They are people who have grafted away on Labour-backing papers their whole lives, and in walks this rich Aussie, claiming a paper and letting them have free reign over it – or at least giving that impression. Lamb tries to be strict but it flares up only occasionally.
And there is a real sense of the people in this play. These journalists are determined that they will represent the views of ordinary people, and maybe it’s only because of hindsight this seems mind-numbingly ignorant. In the final moments of the play Murdoch starts to steer the paper towards the Conservatives. He wants to meet with them, a glimpse at the partnership that would give The Sun the reputation it has in my neck of the woods. But for the bulk of the play, because we are so caught up in story there is no time to make ‘judgements.’ Is this pandering to populism necessarily a good thing? Obviously, for the sake of sales it is, but I can only see it from the angle that this is all geared to make swallowing the politics of the 1980s easier for Sun readers.
I have no interest in rehabilitating Murdoch. My opinion of him did not change, nor did it complicate, to be perfectly honest. I hate the man’s guts and I hate what his paper is responsible for. I had to view Carvel’s performance as something completely separate from the man – not to say this isn’t the intention or even my unique response. A disgustingly accurate characterisation, I’m sure, but I’m still unable to hold the idea in my head that Murdoch has any depth at all. But that’s my issue. The play is rock-solid, with a brilliant company. And you’ve got like four months to see it in the West End as part of Graham’s plan to colonise the whole of St Martin’s Lane.
Photo by Marc Brenner.