Is there a more prescient playwright working in Britain today than James Graham? His 2012 smash-hit This House, which finished its long overdue West End run back in February, prefigured the complex Westminster arithmetic resulting from June 8th’s general election with its rollicking, raucous resurrection of Labour’s shaky ’70s government (so much so, in fact, that people were asking him what the hung parliament would mean on Twitter). And now, with Corbyn apparently impervious to tabloid smears and received wisdom questioning the right-wing press’ ability to command the public as it once did, along comes Graham with another thumper, this time tackling the Rupert Murdoch’s tumultuous takeover of the Sun.
It’s 1969. Fleet Street is a thriving thoroughfare of feverish printrooms and dingy pubs, with Hugh Cudlipp’s Mirror taking top spot in the circulation stakes at over four million daily readers. Into this bygone world swaggers Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch, an Aussie outsider intent on shaking things up. He buys a broadsheet – the failing Sun – and, together with Richard Coyle’s disenfranchised and dissolute hack Larry Lamb, sets about turning it into a tasteless, titillating red-
Like This House, Ink intertwines a personal and a public story. On one level, Graham’s play is a compelling character study of two men, two outsiders rejected by the Establishment, intent on bloodying its sneering nose, and prepared to go to unprecedented lengths to do so. On another, it is a thrilling historical exhumation of a turning point in British society, of a moment when market forces began determining the content of papers and Fleet Street fought its way into the gutter. David Hare and Howard Brenton tackled much the same subject in their 1985 satire Pravda.
And, like in This House, Graham posits this historical quasi-fiction as a classic struggle of old vs new, of flawed but principled tradition vs cut-throat and callous innovation, of crosswords and gardening tips vs free giveaways and topless teenagers. As the death of something august and honest at the hands of something new, nasty and nefarious. The prospect of Thatcherism, which Murdoch’s rag worked so hard to support, looms large on the horizon. It is no coincidence that, towards the end of Ink, Carvel’s Murdoch instructs Coyle’s Lamb to begin cosying up to the Conservatives, particularly that sharp girl at Education.
It’s gripping stuff, suffused with a resounding historical significance, and Graham paints it all with rambunctious brushstrokes. Heaping characters on to the stage in a whirlwind of short scenes and skits, he etches out Fleet Street in the dying days of Wilson’s ’60s government with brashness and brio, chronicling The Sun‘s hectic rush towards their first edition as a tabloid, their embroilment in the Muriel McKay kidnapping, and their sacrilegious establishment of Page 3. Everyone smokes, everyone swears and everyone swaggers around with sleeves rolled up and sweat-soaked brows.
Everyone apart from Carvel’s Murdoch that is. This isn’t the octogenarian, cradle-snatching media mogul of today, but the dapper, debonair Murdoch of yesteryear. Carvel, oozing a faintly reptilian menace, barks and bites his way around Bunny Christie’s set – a multi-levelled, multi-farious mock-up of an old-timey newspaper office – decorating his hostile, heretical dialogue with fierce hand-gestures and a pitch-perfect Australian brogue. It’s an astonishing, transformative performance, and one matched every step of the way by Coyle, who’s Yorkshire-born Lamb embodies just the right combination of faded journo charm and scumbag sleaze.
Rupert Goold orchestrates it all with bombastic vigour, embracing the same headlong haste that Jeremy Herrin did with This House, infusing the action with a knockabout gleefulness and a relentless pace that makes three hours feel like five minutes. Front pages are splashed against the back wall by Jon Driscoll’s projections, Lynne Page choreographs rhythmic, ritualistic charades, and Adam Cork scores it all with a stomping, sonorous sensationalism.
There are flaws. The personal side to Graham’s play takes time to bleed through, and it never really has the emotional tug that his other work does, perhaps because both leads are thoroughly unlikeable. There’s not enough attention paid to the increasingly outrageous behaviour of Lamb – an opportunity to inspect the contemporary corollaries with Leveson gone begging surely? And there are segments – when an ink-splattered cockney takes us deep into the bowels of the papers’ printing press, for example – that feel a bit too much like a history lesson. But the scope, the style, and the significance of Ink ultimately wins. And wins big. Graham’s gamble pays off, just like Murdoch’s did.
Ink is on until 5th August 2017 at the Almeida. Click here for more details.