Rupert Murdoch was not the first publisher to engage in sensational journalism. After all, there was William Randolph Hearst setting the tone for ‘yellow journalism” near the arrival of the 20th century. But Murdoch lowered the practice to new depths of vulgarity with his Sun newspaper in London. “Ink,” a play by James Graham, entertainingly explores that chapter in Murdoch’s publishing history.
“Ink” was originally staged in London, and the Almeida Theatre and Sonia Friedman Productions have joined the Manhattan Theatre Club in presenting it on Broadway. Bertie Carvel of the original cast plays Murdoch in his rise to power, with the action set in Fleet Street in 1969.
Under the direction of Rupert Goold, the play is presented broadly in recalling the drama of building The Sun in its bid to pass the tabloid The Mirror in circulation. In addition to the private plotting between Murdoch and his editor Larry Lamb, played with whirlwind force by Jonny Lee Mller, there is somewhat of a vaudevillian approach at times. Whenever a new staff member is recruited, especially stolen from The Mirror, there is a dancing line of add-on celebration.
The second act begins hilariously, with a background of signs bearing ultra-sensational headlines, while at center stage cast members satirically enact the outrageous conduct reflected in the stories. The entire set signifies larger-than-life treatment. Designed by Bunny Christie, who also designed the costumes, the set consists of a mountainous pile-on of boxes, equipment and multi-level illustrations of newspaper production, including five huge letter W’s representing the who, what, when, where and why supposed to be covered in a story.
The saga is presented with intensity to capture the excitement and frustrations along the way to tabloid dominance. There are various crises, including the disaster when The Sun breaks a story about a kidnapping when it would be wiser to keep it under wraps as the police conduct a search. The episode ends in the death of the victim and embarrassment for The Sun. Lamb is responsible, and Murdoch is angry, but Lamb is always pointing out that he is following the overall dictates of his boss to go the limit.
Eventually the decision to run page 3 photos of nude women is addressed—or shall we say undressed---and the paper takes flack for that, but the policy boosts circulation as intended. Murdoch makes a point of insisting that he is giving readers what they want in accordance with the laws of supply and demand. Carvel’s portrayal of the tycoon is entertaining and vigorous, but not descending into caricature.
“Ink” is effective in showing the ways of print journalism and the era it has represented in bygone times before the advent of electronic publishing. It also speaks to the abandonment of ethics and morality in order to gain profits.
There is a particularly telling conversation near the play’s end when Murdoch speaks prophetically of expanding into television (think Fox News) and of going to New York (think New York Post and Wall Street Journal). At the performance I attended there was a knowing laugh from audience members. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed April 26, 2019.