Is Rupert Murdoch a hero or a villain? First seen at the Almeida Theatre in London in 2017, ahead of a West End run, James Graham’s absorbing and uncomfortably entertaining account of the mogul’s London beginnings isn’t that kind of play.
Ink serves as both a post-mortem on newsprint’s power to shape national culture and an origin tale for today’s ceaseless churn of attention-baiting content. In Graham’s retelling, Murdoch and Larry Lamb, notorious editor of UK newspaper the Sun, hasten the tipping point simply by giving the people what they want.
Rupert Goold’s production, which is now being staged just blocks from Murdoch’s towering Manhattan headquarters, buoys its factual accounting with the director’s typical taste for imaginative fun. Office desks stack up like many impounded cars on Bunny Christie’s set, encircled by blank newsreels for which Jon Driscoll has designed context-setting projections. A hiring spree after Murdoch poaches Lamb to reinvent the Sun unfolds as a choreographed musical number.
Bertie Carvel layers sly and subtle menace beneath Murdoch’s near-religious devotion to sales figures. But it’s Jonny Lee Miller’s Lamb who turns more ruthless in his pursuit of appealing to readers’ basest instincts. If Miller’s performance rings a bit hollow, it suits the part. Ink’s final leg gets bogged down parsing Lamb’s decision to publish topless women when it might have looked further forward at Murdoch’s global impact. But even though it’s more effective as social history than human drama, Graham’s play still packs a prescient punch.