The life of the most influential Australian comes to the stage in a tame but entertaining enough bio-cabaret. David Williamson’s Rupert is much less grand than the man himself.
It’s not The Wall Street Journal. But it’s not the News of the World, either. Melbourne Theatre Company’s bio-play Rupert is more like the Herald Sun: superficial, righteous, but (Andrew Bolt’s column aside) mostly inoffensive. You won’t learn much, but it’s guiltily entertaining.
The major problem with David Williamson’s work is its ambition. And given we thought that had all but drained from the prolific playwright, we can hardly be cross. In trying to capture the 82-year-old life of Keith Rupert Murdoch, or at least a 61-year working one — the most remarkable and powerful, perhaps, of any Australian — Williamson delivers an animated Wikipedia entry. We learn what he did, in a series of desultory sketches, but we learn almost nothing more about who he is. When the poster promises we need to “THINK AGAIN” about what we know about Rupert, that’s as trumped up as some of those Daily Telegraph front pages.
In many ways Williamson, with a liberal-mindedness his subject hates, shows admirable restraint. This isn’t a hatchet job; nothing awkward for News Corp theatre critics to tip-toe around in tomorrow’s papers. Yes, Rupert put his business before his family. Yes, he disgusted his mum and more than one wife by his tabloid tendencies. Yes, he interfered in newsrooms and directed editorial agendas. Yes, he cosied up to pollies to expand his business. But even Rupert’s friends would admit to that. This we knew, and Williamson, unlike some of Murdoch’s journalists, mostly keeps his prejudices out of the copy.
This is Rupert in his own words, unvarnished we’re promised, the ringmaster of his life’s circus. Sean O’Shea has the swagger and many of the mannerisms, tweeting his arrival on stage and then using his iPhone as a remote control to navigate the story. He “casts” Guy Edmonds as his younger self, and shadows him like the ghost of Christmases future. Both are good, particularly O’Shea. And the conceit, in itself, is pretty effective.
It’s all there: the Oxford education, his start in Adelaide, expansion to Perth, the purchase of Sydney’s Daily Mirror and the barneys with the Packers, his incursion into Fleet Street and smashing the printing union, the move to New York and then Hollywood, the mother who never liked what he did, the frustrated wives and marriage breakdowns, the cosy relationships with the pollies: Whitlam, Thatcher, Regan, Blair. And phone-hacking, of course, but that almost seems like an afterthought in a vaudevillian two-and-a-half hours. It’s a life on fast-forward, with no time for real insight or pathos.
If anything the timing works against the show. The influence of Murdoch on politicians and elections has been at the forefront of public debate over the last few weeks (Crikey documented his record just this week) and Williamson adds nothing, really, to the narrative. It’s a potted history of the political favours Murdoch has pulled, a damning picture of strong-armed influence in boardrooms and government backrooms. But compared to the fierce debate happening in political circles at the moment, this is a docile portrait.
The opportunity to really explore Rupert’s psychology has been lost. But then, Williamson was never the man for it. His script is void of wit; the laughs came from pratfalls rather than the pedestrian prose. Moments of high drama and, potentially, emotional depth could be plays in themselves — the engagements with the world’s most powerful people alone would be a terrific premise, a la Peter Morgan’s brilliant National Theatre production The Audience with Helen Mirren as Queen Liz. Perhaps someone will write that in the future. Williamson, admirably in a way, bites off a whole life and can’t chew quickly enough. It’s an artifice and not much more.
The performances from the ensemble are breathless. Marg Downey plays Dame Elisabeth and Margaret Thatcher like she’s still on the set of Fast Forward; HaiHa Le is a giggling Tina Brown and a feisty Wendi Deng; Simon Gleeson nails Bob Hawke’s voice, almost gets Tony Blair’s but can’t find Paul Keating’s; Bert LeBonte has fun as foul-mouthed Frank Packer and bolshie Roger Ailes; Scott Sheridan is a Murdoch, a Packer and Nick Clegg; and Daniela Farinacci is wives #1 and #2 and a host of other bit players. All up, they share well over 60 characters with lightning-fast costume changes and helpful pointers from Rupert as MC. Director Lee Lewis keeps it all on the rails — just — in a well choreographed routine. Stephen Curtis’ set and AV design is something less than cutting-edge (at one point Rupert was rearranging headlines on an overhead projector), eventually folding away to leave the business baron alone on stage, a picture of Milly Dowler (the murdered British schoolgirl whose parents had their phones hacked by Rupert’s henchmen) ghostly projected behind, vowing “I’m not finished yet”.
But there’s no menace. No sense of a man that has left world leaders trembling. No explanation of the undisputed acumen. It’s Twitter Rupert: callus, sure, but avuncular; grinning and awkwardly dancing through life. An entertaining enough cabaret that floats away like newsprint on the breeze.
Murdoch, we’re told above all, gambled big. Williamson has done the same here, when you compare it to some of his recent fare. His subject would at least have to admire that.
The details: Rupert is at the Playhouse, Arts Centre until September 28. Tickets on the company website.