Theater review by Helen Shaw
When a show doesn’t know what it’s about, it starts asking itself existential questions. “What makes a good story?” a character might ask another character, portentously. This is exactly the moment the theatergoer should start worrying. The word story is to bad plays what the word family is to bad action films: a sign of vapidity taking itself seriously.
In James Graham’s Ink, publisher Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) asks editor Larry Lamb (an overtaxed Jonny Lee Miller) “What makes a good story?” in line seven. At the time, they are backlit and wreathed in smoke, peering angrily out of stygian darkness. Perhaps it’s too dim for them to see the obvious? What makes a good story is not, as this Lamb tells Murdoch in 1969, the five W’s of Who, What, Where, When and What Next. Those W’s are the components of an adequately reported journalistic piece—something the Sun, the influential British tabloid that Murdoch is about to buy and make over, will treat roughly. A good dramatic story, though, has more than the newsroom basics. It has pressure, argument, surprise, suspense.
Instead, Ink regales us with the tale of the revamped Sun’s first year, complete with minute accounts of which guy got hired for the sports desk. (It was Frank Nicklin! I know!) In a bid to shape the show, Graham establishes a “clock”—Murdoch sets a sales target for Lamb’s first year—but this deadline means nothing to us and seemingly little to the characters. Graham’s version of Murdoch is a businessman who only cares about moving product, and he knows that no one ever goes broke giving the people what they want. Lamb’s more personal resentment of the hidebound, posh-talking editors of Fleet Street prods him into tactics like busting unions and pioneering the Page 3 Girl: a “glamour” shot of a bikini-clad (later unclothed) woman. He also makes editorial choices that might have imperiled a Sun executive’s wife: After she was abducted and held for ransom, Lamb splashed a confidential letter from her on the front page.
So why is there no drama here? Clearly, there were matters of life and death confronting these men. The choices Murdoch and his editor made 40 years ago—the race to the bottom, the destruction of journalistic ethics, the anti-immigrant rhetoric—still matter a great deal today. But although Graham labors hard to humanize Lamb with shadows of self-doubt, this psychological element is oversold and unconvincing, and we’re left with a long show about a foregone conclusion. Taken-from-the-record plays often have this problem: We know how things turned out. We know what a Murdochian world looks like because we live in it, and once the show has answered the question of how did we get here (they did it to sell papers), there’s still two hours and 20 minutes to go.
Director Rupert Goold knows that Ink needs ginning up, and boy, he ladles on the gin. This production is loud, and it’s lit like a rock show. It has the chiaroscuro intensity of a C.S. Lewis morality play about the Devil: Carvel’s Murdoch is the Old Enemy (slippery, angular, pantomime evil) and Miller’s Lamb is Man being tempted to moral slaughter. Goold may think he’s rescuing a dry procedural by turning it into hyperactive, overamplified children’s theater for adults, but he’s actually administering the killing blow. His dynamic control is shot: WE HAVE TO DESIGN A LOGO! is shouted in our faces at the same volume as OUR FRIEND’S WIFE HAS BEEN KIDNAPPED! At the top of Act Two, Goold has Lamb “conduct” the newsroom as though it’s a Fellini-esque parade; Miller appears on top of a pile of desks, capering evilly as their demonic emcee. We’re meant to believe that a few months later this demon will flinch at asking a lady to take her top off? That he’ll think ruefully about his pa? Okay, buddy… if that’s your story.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Broadway). By James Graham. Directed by Rupert Goold. With Bertie Carvel, Jonny Lee Miller. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.