James Graham’s Ink and The Lehman Trilogy make for an interesting comparative case study. Both take on self-made giants of the market; both use humorous, highly structured writing to pick apart the hubristic growth of a modern moneymaking empire; both are unashamedly built to be entertainments — you could even call them romps. Although it’s debatable whether any play, no matter how heavy or how light, is capable of doing more in the face of contemporary capitalism than simply holding a mirror up to nature, even that task can get easily sidetracked. The Lehman Trilogy somehow managed to frolic about Wall Street for almost four hours without ever really approaching the ethical elephant in the room. Ink, though it resists moralizing, is at least interested in asking moral questions. It’s about journalism, after all, so questions are the marrow in its bones. And as directed with plenty of pop and fizz by Rupert Goold, and driven by the compelling performances of Bertie Carvel and Jonny Lee Miller, it’s both playful and thoughtful — not, perhaps, a kick-in-the-guts play, but an energetic, respectable handshake.
“What makes a good story? Go,” the soon-to-be international media tycoon Rupert Murdoch (Carvel) demands of newspaperman Larry Lamb (Miller) as Ink begins. “Well, it’s the five W’s, isn’t it,” grunts Larry, and as he lists them, scaled-up versions of old lead-type letters illuminate throughout the mountainous maze of old newsroom desks, papers, and filing cabinets that makes up Bunny Christie’s imposing yet whimsical set. Who, What, Where, When. There’s a fifth W, of course: Why. Is it the most important or the least so? Murdoch and Lamb leave that question open for the time being. The play, meanwhile, concerns itself with How. How did an Oxford-educated Australian businessman in his 30s — at once an aspirant to the British Establishment and a proudly contentious outsider — become one of the most powerful media moguls in the world? How did the The Sun — a profitless “stuck-up broadsheet” and the “laughingstock” of the British newspaper industry, sold off for a song by the chairman of England’s most powerful paper, The Mirror — become a model for splashy, trashy tabloids the world over and, for decades, the biggest daily in the U.K.? How did the little paper that Rupert Murdoch bought in 1969 pave the way for the kind of rancorous populism behind, for example, Brexit? How — and when, and why — did the irreverent fun of it all start getting scary?
Carvel is a devilish delight to watch as Murdoch. He hikes his shoulders up and juts his head forward, giving him a vulturish vibe even in his loose, lanky frame. His mouth is always slightly open, his tongue creepily active — he’s always hungry — and his eyes are like two tiny black lasers, constantly scanning the room. The director Matthew Warchus, who directed Carvel as the hideous headmistress in Matilda (for which he won a Tony), affectionately calls him a “nose-putty actor” — and it’s true that there’s something refreshingly broad and tricksterish about his style. Brits in general are more comfortable as character actors, knowingly playing games with their own bodies and voices. Americans tend to want to be serious heroes — we get stuck in our heads and our feels. Not that Murdoch and his editor-and-chief have no feelings, but Ink is in large part a story of ambition, which means that sparks of doubt, distaste, and conscience are systematically doused until it’s too late.
Miller’s Lamb is a kind of Faust to the Mephistopheles of Carvel’s Murdoch. He’s the man on the ground, the one who yields to temptation, the one who goes to terrifying lengths in order to meet his boss’s challenge: that The Sun should outsell The Mirror within a single year. With his Yorkshire accent, square jaw, and furrow-browed, bulldoggish energy, Miller is forceful and even sympathetic as the kind of man whose zealous tunnel vision will lead to success, but at a cost. Larry Lamb was in control as The Sun established what kind of paper it was going to be — and it was going to be the kind of paper that put topless models on page 3, the kind of paper that ruthlessly pursued the story of the kidnapping of its own deputy chairman’s wife, even when that story came to a brutal end, an end for which The Sun itself perhaps shared culpability. It was going to be the kind of paper that did anything, published anything, that would sell, that would cause, in Murdoch’s words, “a disruption” in the status quo. Like Faust, it was going to stick it to the man, revel for a while in its own delicious rebellion, and end up without a soul.
Ink is perhaps on the back-heavy side, with all of the play’s weightiest, densest episodes shoved into Act Two, whereas most of the first act is dedicated to the amusing, Ocean’s Eleven–like assembling of The Sun’s ragtag team. David Wilson Barnes is a solid, watchful presence as Brian McConnell, the paper’s news editor, and Robert Stanton is a strait-laced hoot as Bernard Shrimsley, the deputy editor whose contribution to a team brainstorming session about what people really want to read — who they really are, unashamed and uncensored — is that he secretly loves “adapting the lesser known works of Émile Zola from French into English.” Tara Summers is sturdy and unapologetic as Joyce Hopkirk, the paper’s women’s editor, who is forward-thinking when it comes to feminism for white English women but pointedly suggests that Stephanie Rahn — the model destined to become the first “Page 3 girl,” played with tart thoughtfulness by Rana Roy — change her actual last name, Khan, to “something more European.”
Graham’s play doesn’t dive deeply into how The Sun and its editors interacted with British politics, but hints of the worldview it pushed — and pushes, implicitly or not — are there in casually menacing lines like Joyce’s to Stephanie, and in Murdoch’s offhand comments near the play’s end, as he digs into one of the bloody steaks he’s always eating. “We should start schmoozing the Tories, this new government,” he tells Lamb between bites. “Joseph — and what’s-her-face, that impressive bird in education, Thatcher, get her in too.” The legacy of fear-mongering conservativism in Britain, all the way up to the imminent disaster of Brexit, looms over Ink. It’s there, along with the leering ghosts of social media yet to come, in one of the play’s most chilling moments, when Murdoch encourages Lamb to go directly to the people for their scoops. “Fuck it, get the readers to become the storytellers,” he proposes, eyes glinting. “Let them bring [the news] to us rather than us chasing them … Isn’t that the real end point of the revolution? When they’re producing their own content themselves? That’s when we know they’re really getting what they want.” The people — and the devil — are always hungry.
Ink is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.