The Almeida’s production of James Graham’s new play, Ink, proves that visual trickery is not necessary to make great theatre in the 21st Century. This does not mean that Rupert Goold’s outstanding production is not visually interesting – it certainly is – but it is a production that focuses on acting and directorial vision to tell a fascinating, compelling story. The National Theatre should look on and learn.
It never ceases to amaze how unlikely topics can make for superb theatre. Who would have thought that a drama about the way in which Rupert Murdoch acquired the ailing Daily Herald newspaper and turned it into The Sun, the most important paper of the Seventies could become a sensationally effective, absorbing and highly entertaining drama? Rupert Goold for one – and the evidence is his remarkable production of Ink now playing at the Almeida Theatre where he is Artistic Director.
Written by James Graham, Ink is an impressive achievement. It takes facts, puts the author’s spin on them, and presents them in a bold, individual and attention grabbing way, complete with colourful language, cartoon sections, opinion pieces, snapshots which reveal a lot, sporting results, horoscopes, letters to the editors, and even bare flesh. Graham’s play finds a theatrical way to present information about The Sun almost as The Sun might have reported it.
At the same time, Graham might be performing an autopsy on the notion of British integrity. Watching Ink now, in the wake of May’s inglorious election disaster, her magic money tree deal with the DUP to cling on to power and the tsunami like response of the public to the Grenfell disaster, and the desperate way The Sun and its fellows have sought to keep up with evolving public sentiment rather than to attempt to shape that opinion, is very different to how watching it even six months ago would have felt. Then it might have just been intriguing and entertaining; now, it seems like a window into how and what went wrong, not just in newspapers but in politics and society generally.
Graham demonstrates how the vision of a complete outsider (Rupert Murdoch) came to overthrow the settled wisdom and entrenched thinking about how and why newspapers existed and what they needed to do to keep and improve their place in the world. The arrogant and disdainful opposition of the elite who ran and edited rival newspapers; the unshakeable belief that editors knew what the people wanted far better than the people did; the resistance to change; and the desire to keep intact behind-the-scenes deals which ensured a distribution system that looked after the established; decades of tradition embodied in archaic and unwieldy processes – all of these matters stood between Murdoch and his desire to break apart the grip Fleet Street had on the newspaper industry.
Indeed, there would be a good argument that Ink has a second purpose. If you consider it in allegorical terms, with the newspaper industry as British politics, and Murdoch as Jeremy Corbyn (neither would care for that notion), then what you have is an analysis of the impact of an outsider on an entrenched, self-assured and highly entitled elite, where the outsider shatters established thinking and the people get what they want, or at least what they think they want.
Graham is not a writer burdened by his past success and his work in Ink surpasses his achievements in This House, The Vote and Privacy. Oddly, it is his book for Broadway’s Finding Neverland which seemed to most inform Ink. There is a musicality to the piece which keeps it buoyant, characters are established with brisk economy, little is black and white, there are solos, duets and ensemble pieces, and the whole proceeding takes place in a world the audience is aware of, perhaps even loves or loved to a degree, but never truly understood.
It is the dialogue in Ink which sparkles; it has a sprightly, vicious underside as well as an impressive, realistic and muscular sincerity. It manages to feel entirely of its time as well as very now. It’s funny, insightful, touching and bleak, sometimes all at once. The words suit the characters, the characters suit the mood, and the mood suits the story. The verbal building blocks are sturdy and gripping.
Bunny Christie has designed a set full of its own building blocks which is the perfect setting for this tale of change. Rather like looking at a busy front page of The Sun, the impression is one of organised chaos, with many disparate elements clamouring for attention, many different points of interest, and many different ways to beguile. There are light boxes, hydraulic lifts, moving large props, makeshift stairs, visual projections as well as fixed arrangements which truly replicate the disciplined fuss and bother of Sixties newspaper rooms. Neil Austin’s lighting is superb.
A table at Rules is evoked perfectly, as is the hierarchy of the newspapers, with the Mirror team high in the sky, and the newly but scarcely resourced The Sun crew at the bottom. Paper and the constituent parts of the automated printing press are in sharp focus – as is the tally of readership which plots the progress of The Sun‘s rise. It all looks and feels period – and the projections of headlines and ink flowing do not detract from that sense.
Goold’s staging is fluid and imaginative, although it is clearly a Goold production. Some of the energy and devices found in Enron and American Psycho are in play here and that is no bad thing. Goold is unafraid to meld movement and music into dramatic tapestries and here, especially in the almost vaudevillian moment when The Sun goes to print for the first time, those moments are quite magical. Very effective shorthand visual depictions of chaos, success and glee.
The cast is good, rather than excellent, across the board but there are some remarkable standouts. Richard Coyle is quite extraordinary as Larry Lamb, the editor that Fleet Street rejected only to be seduced back into the fray by the chance to helm The Sun and take on former friends who treated him badly (at least in his eyes). Coyle embodies the street fighter sense of the great old fashioned newspaper man; he is tightly coiled, ready for hard work and ready to smash barriers to ensure success.
Coyle starts off, rightly, wary of Murdoch (an oily Bertie Carvel) but over the course of the play takes comfort in their association and then drives harder and further than Murdoch seems inclined to get the prize that both seek – higher circulation figures than the Mirror. The greatest dramatic moments in the play come when Coyle fearlessly and angrily defies tradition – both in relation to refusing a sacked worker (a spy caught red-handed) his “entitlement” to a banging out, a newspaper tradition, and in relation to his crossing union lines when the relevant union refused to permit the last stage in the process that would have led to the first Page 3 Girl issue.
For a play with a very masculine focus (newspapers then, and still now in many ways, having a very alpha Male focus), Ink manages to provide good work for great female actors. Pearl Chanda is quite wonderful as Stephanie Rahn, the first ever Page 3 girl, and she surfs all the emotions the character experiences with elegant aplomb. Rachel Caffrey is impressive in a number of roles, but particularly as Murdoch’s first wife, Anna, a woman whose views mattered to Murdoch.
Sophie Stanton, in a career highlight, is marvellous as salt-of-the-Earth Joyce Hopkirk, who handles women’s issues for the paper and deals with the men with a breezy saltiness. She only has to sparkle her eyes to make a point. She also is excellent as the sweet wife of Sir Alick, and makes a sufficiently good impression in small moments so that when she is kidnapped, the stakes seem very high indeed.
Jack Holden shines as the androgynous Beverley, the newbie photographer critical to some of the paper’s key moments. Holden is hilariously dead-pan as Beverley and, although he has few lines, he wastes none of them and is a magnetic and winning character in the melee of personalities and types which make up The Sun‘s motley, but extremely talented, crew. Holden also has an hilarious vignette as Christopher All Creatures Great And Small Timothy, out of which he squeezes every laugh through prodigious skill.
Justin Salinger makes a good fist of tightly strung news editor Brian McConnell and Tim Steed makes excellent mileage out of purse-lipped Bernard Shrimsley, Lamb’s deputy and sense checker. Tony Turner is a very funny, very down to Earth sports editor, Frank Nicklin, and there is good, but inconsistent, work from Geoffrey Freshwater as Sir Alick, a man whose life in the news changes dramatically when his wife’s kidnapping becomes the news.
This being a play about the meteoric rise of The Sun, Rupert Murdoch was always going to be critical, one way or another. Carvel ensures that the character is vivid and central, but Ink is by no means the Carvel show.
Adopting a very mannered performance, Carvel uses that to easily distinguish his Murdoch as an outsider, an usurper, an agent of change. His very mode of playing seems to mock the others. This is quite inspired, brilliant in a fundamental way.
Carvel does not seek to imitate Murdoch, but he certainly summons up the absolute essence of the man, in all its unfiltered glory (or ignominy). Eyebrows and silky voice are deployed to fascinating effect, as is the odd C-word punctuation mark. Carvel is chilling and compelling, and, most impressively, he makes the motivations of Murdoch seem clear and noble.
Following in the footsteps of so many other recent Almeida productions, Ink must surely head to the West End. It’s an example of superlative writing, impressive directorial conceit and some acting brilliance.
Theatre full of headlines and sure to generate them.