Thursday, October 5, 2017

Review: 'Ink' at the Duke of York Theatre, 3rd October 2017

Ink reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

I hate The Sun. It's a tumour at the heart of British discourse: a lying, hateful and occasionally criminal publication whose mission appears to be to keep the working class under the thumb of their Conservative masters. It absolutely deserves its nickname: The Scum.

So why, in James Graham's Ink, did I find myself occasionally rooting for its success? Set in the late 60s, we begin with Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) eager to expand his British newspaper business. He already owns the Sunday paper, The News of the World and is on the hunt for a daily publication. He finds a promising candidate in The Sun, a failing Labour-backing daily with a dismal circulation.

Murdoch aims to wipe The Sun's slate clean and produce a newspaper that'll blow the doors out of the calcified and deferential British press. His primary partner in this soon-to-be editor Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle), who's nursing a grudge against his former employers at The Daily Mirror. Fuelled both by the freedom to create whatever newspaper he wants and the challenge to make it the most read paper in Britain by the end of the year, Lamb assembles a 'dirty dozen' gang of disgruntled journalists and launches a paper that screams onto newsstands with the headline "HORSE DOPE SCANDAL".

What follows is a multi-levelled dissection of what The Sun really means. It bills itself as reflecting what the British public want, and not what some haughty establishment thinks they should want. So the new Sun is funny, cheeky, sex-obsessed, sporty and is constantly giving away freebies. Both Murdoch and Lamb measure a newspaper's success by its sales figures, and their formula soon pays off gangbusters. But the wrinkle at the core of Ink is the difference between reflecting the existing desires of the readership and creating new and dangerous desires that must be fulfilled.

Ink shows us a newspaper caught in a Red Queen's race: it must keep running as fast as it can in order to stay in the same place, and continually crank up the controversy and excitement in order to sate its increasingly voracious readership. Though set nearly a half-century in the past, we're still actively going through the same process today.

What's especially interesting about Ink is the way it makes the beginning of Murdoch's dominance of the British media exciting. It's incredibly difficult not to sympathise with him when he rails against the closed doors of an establishment that thinks it knows best for the British public - best illustrated by his explanation of the planned military coup against Harold Wilson's government. This network of public schoolboys with a narrow view of the world and parochial moralities presents an inviting target, with Ink's Murdoch wholly righteous in his attempts to demolish it.

Throughout the play, there is much talk of The Sun 'disrupting' Fleet Street, the word foreshadowing of the disruption concept we see all around us emanating from Silicon Valley, and seen in companies like Uber, Netflix, Airbnb and Amazon, all of whom have torn up the rulebooks of existing business structures. Watching the paranoiac and desperate reactions of the competing newspapers to The Sun's brash take-no-prisoners style is what you imagine going on in the boardrooms of dinosauric companies around the world.

This trickles down into a wider overview of free-market capitalism: a creed that runs through the marrow of Rupert Murdoch's bones. He is almost an embodiment of capitalism, constantly seeking to expand into new markets, create new products and expand his powers. Some of Ink's most interesting moments come when Murdoch's economics clash with his morality - finding himself momentarily lost when his disgust at the first Page 3 girl battles against the inarguable fact of boosted readership. Bubbling away in the background is Murdoch's future victory over the printer's union, his full-blooded support of Thatcherism and the cooling of his revolutionary fervour as he supercedes the old establishment with a fresh one of his own creation.

So yeah, there's a lot going on in Ink. I loved it: it's funny, informative and bristling with things to say. Performances are uniformly excellent, with Bertie Carvel's three-dimensional and vividly complex Murdoch my highlight. Then you've got Bunny Christie's vertiginous set, an Escher-like mountain of fag-stained desks and tatty office chairs, with the liquid metal industrial printing presses 
Satanically lurking below. What else can I say? It's brill, go check it out.

Ink is booking at the Duke of York Theatre until 6th January. Press tickets provided by

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