Did you hear the one in regards to the man who sells his soul to the satan? How in regards to the story wherein a complete nation does the identical factor?
These cautionary tales intersect to extremely invigorating impact in James Graham’s “Ink,” which opened on Wednesday evening on the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. And don’t fear, uneasy Americans, it’s not about you.
Except that it’s.
Directed with vaudevillian aptitude and firecracker snap by Rupert Goold, “Ink” is ready in London, within the gory glory days of a quaint phenomenon: print journalism. The present begins in 1969, with the acquisition of a dying newspaper. Old, er, information, proper?
On the opposite. Mr. Graham’s account of the resurrection of that paper — into a tabloid behemoth that hypnotizes its readership whereas without end altering its competitors’s DNA — foretells the age of populist media wherein we now stay and squirm.
As for the Mephistopheles who units this course of into movement, he’s nonetheless very a lot alive and reigning over a strong empire that in all probability reaches into your personal house. His title is Rupert Murdoch.
As drawn with Dickensian relish by Bertie Carvel, this Murdoch is indeed a man of wealth and taste, with a surprising touch of the prig. And by artfully tapping into the most primal instincts of those he would have do his bidding, Mr. Carvel’s Murdoch is someone to whom it is all but impossible to say no.
First staged at London’s hit-incubating Almeida Theater in 2017, “Ink” charts Murdoch’s seduction of one Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller), an editor steeped in the old-school values of Fleet Street, then the main artery of British journalism. It is Lamb whom Murdoch, freshly arrived from Australia, chooses to oversee the rebirth of his new purchase, The Sun — a “stuck-up broadsheet,” as he describes it — as a tabloid for the masses.
As embodied by a terrific Mr. Miller, Lamb is a natural-born Faust, the son of a Yorkshire blacksmith itching to join the exclusive club of masthead-topping titans. More than Richard Coyle, who brought a brooding ambivalence to the same part in London, Mr. Miller’s Lamb blazes with ambition and class resentment.
This brusque and sinewy Lamb has no problem standing up to Murdoch’s lion — or rather fox, since Mr. Carvel’s interpretation has a vulpine slyness. But in the memorable, shadow-steeped dialogue between the two men that begins the show, it’s evident that Murdoch knows just what buttons to push to turn Lamb into his avenging puppet.
And so Lamb tears like a juggernaut through the Fleet Street watering holes, nightclubs and even a sauna to recruit the have-not journalists he needs to remake The Sun. Under the terms of Murdoch’s purchase, this metamorphosis must be achieved in alarmingly short order.
The first act of “Ink” abounds in adrenaline. Lamb’s inspirational watchword for his crew is “fun.” We are, after all, at the tail end of the Swinging Sixties. And Mr. Goold and the choreographer Lynne Page turn the cast into a (sometimes literal) conga line, wriggling to an infectious, forward-moving beat that obviates doubts and scruples. (The period music is by Adam Cork.)
It is indeed fun to watch Lamb and his crew brainstorming in meetings about how to best their rivals, while pondering what “people really like.” The answers include television, gossip and sex — obvious, perhaps, but nonetheless waiting to be exploited with a new, unapologetic directness. Factual accuracy becomes secondary.
As Murdoch tells the staff just before the first edition of the revamped Sun goes to press: “You’ve decided to give people what they want. Something so radical — and yet so simple. To hold up a mirror … to ourselves. And to hell with the consequences if we don’t like what we see. It’s who we are.”
Or as Murdoch urges Lamb, “Get the readers to become the storytellers.” He adds, “Isn’t that the real end point of the revolution? When they’re producing their own content themselves?”
Those words might be the credo of any number of latter-day moguls, including Mark Zuckerberg. “Ink” proposes that the sensibility that would generate today’s tidal wave of social media originated with early London-era Murdoch.
At the same time, this production is steeped in a gritty nostalgia for the end of a chapter in journalism. The genius set and costume designer, Bunny Christie, has created a landscape of battered metal desks, stacked into rickety hills and valleys.
Neil Austin’s evocatively seedy lighting is filtered through a curtain of (be warned) cigarette smoke, while Jon Driscoll’s wall-filling projections summon black-and-white pages that seem to smudge before your eyes. The technical minutiae of putting a paper to bed in hot type are conjured with affectionate specificity.
The show’s admonitory bass line, which has been throbbing subliminally since the first scene, becomes louder in the second half. Lamb’s evolving killer instinct is tested in this darker — and heavier — act, when the editorial calls he makes have the potential to ruin lives of those close to him.
These involve the sensational coverage of a kidnapping and The Sun’s introduction of naked “glamour models” to its pages — the notorious, long-lived “Page 3 Girls.” The first of these women is portrayed with an admirable mix of pragmatism and vulnerability by Rana Roy. And if the script wanders into finger-wagging didacticism over her fate, it is not Ms. Roy’s fault.
The largely American, multicast ensemble deploys varyingly confident British accents. But it does well in sustaining the play’s propulsive momentum. Its members include Andrew Durand as an awkward young photographer, David Wilson Barnes as Lamb’s lieutenant and a first-rate Michael Siberry as the gentlemanly rival editor Hugh Cudlipp, the personification of the tottering old regime.
The show’s most potent chemistry is, as it should be, between Mr. Miller’s Lamb, as he becomes increasingly drunk on the thrill of success at all costs, and Mr. Carvel’s exquisitely manipulative Murdoch. Previously seen on Broadway as the demonic headmistress of the musical “Matilda,” Mr. Carvel once again delivers a balletically precise study in power incarnate.
His on-the-bias posture is as dramatically italicized as the affirmative font his editors favor, and his hands slice the air with a conjurer’s commanding strokes. He also knows how to command a camera, as is demonstrated in a simulcast interview with a reactionary BBC pundit, who voices the establishment’s objections to Murdoch’s innovations in journalism.
“Countries reinvent themselves all the time,” Murdoch coolly counters. That evidently holds true on both sides of the Atlantic. In the final scene, Murdoch tells Lamb he’s headed to New York. “I’m thinking about buying a TV network over there,” he says.
Say hello, America, to Fox News, and the populist president — and friend of Mr. Murdoch — it helped usher into office.
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