Disrupt, break, revolutionise: these are the precepts of the founding of The Sun, and the premise of a new play, ‘Ink’, by James Graham (This House, Privacy, Finding Neverland). It proves a prophetic incitement, in a play that documents the dystopian arc from a radical mission to propaganda machine. In an age of fake news, this is the play we’ve been waiting for.
It begins with Rupert Murdoch poaching Larry Lamb (played by Richard Coyle) from The Mirror, inviting him to lead the transformation of an ailing broadsheet to a radical new paper. Murdoch (played by the exacting and captivating Bertie Carvel) is a mephistophelean villain, driving change and pushing his editor to think beyond the norm.
Knowing the monster that Murdoch has become, Graham’s capacity to make you side with him and to root for his cause is nothing short of miraculous (especially as, showing first at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, the audience was predominantly to made up of Jeremy Corbyn devotees). Graham’s version of Murdoch is nuanced and flawed and obsessed with the numbers – but also likeable and seductive.
But it’s the editor Lamb who leads the ruthless transformation. Having collected his motley crew of journalists, spurned by the Fleet Street establishment, he embarks on a hedonistic new venture with a editorial line that promises to represent the people and be for the people – it’s democracy and if you don’t like it, Lamb says to the old guard of The Mirror at one point, that’s your problem. And again, you root for The Sun; you want them to break with convention. By contrast, the likes of The Guardian and The Telegraph seem stuffy and old – people want to win things, they want to talk about sex and they want free stuff. So give it to them! Working out of a squalid office, the team stick two fingers up to everything that has come before. By the end of act one the audience is almost giddy with glee and awe.
The story of The Sun is one in which we all know the ending, and as the ruthless drive to become Britain’s biggest paper overtakes what little ethical premise and journalistic integrity was there, James Graham brings the shattering reality of what The Sun did home. They did break the industry, and the ramifications are still being felt to this day.
Dialogue is pacy and tight, with a cast that delivers so fast one wonders what are blunders and what is intentional – it doesn’t matter, the result is wholly believable. And it’s funny. As comedies go, it’s dark, but make no mistake, you’ll laugh. Led by Bertie Carvel and Richard Coyle, the cast, which includes Pearl Chanda, Geoffrey Freshwater, Jack Holden, Rachel Caffrey, Oliver Birch, Justin Salinger and David Schofield, are perfectly on point, delivering energy and humour without ever demanding it.
Needless to say, Rupert Goold’s magic touch is felt here, aided by the gloriously ramshackle set design of Bunny Christie. Physical set pieces shatter tense two-handers, and details (an extended run through of the process of newspaper printing) imbue the story with essential visual texture. Amidst the chaos of the filing cabinets and papers, benches, saunas, bars and desks appear and disappear as swiftly as The Sun moves from news to chip wrapping.
Number-driven journalism could not feel more relevant in the digital age, where data increasingly informs the editorial direction of both new and old media outlets. As the old adage goes, history repeats itself, and the industry has already seen cyclical narratives – the Leveson enquiry, the shutdown of Gawker, to name just a few. This newspaper industry is a state of flux, and, as Ink shows, to disrupt at the expense of integrity has consequences we can no longer afford to ignore.