Review: ‘Ink’ at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Now playing a limited engagement at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Ink, written by James Graham and directed by Rupert Goold, premiered to critical acclaim in London and received multiple nominations from the Olivier Awards prior to its Broadway debut. Inspired by the real-life story of Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s 1969 acquisition and reinvention of England’s declining newspaper The Sun, the well-researched fictionalized historical drama presents a compelling examination of reckless ambition, tabloid sensationalism, and the competitive drive to win at all costs.

Jonny Lee Miller and Bertie Carvel. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Jonny Lee Miller and Bertie Carvel. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Lead actors Bertie Carvel as Murdoch (hunched over, foul mouthed, disdainfully smiling, and hell-bent on vengeance against the exclusive circle of elitist newsmen) and Jonny Lee Miller as Larry Lamb (the ruthless renegade editor he hired to run the paper and, within a year, to overtake the numbers of the top-selling Mirror, from which he bought it) create blistering characterizations that are crass, coarse, and rude, self-important, angry, and cynical, as they disregard established standards of journalism, eliminate the “Why” from the traditional five W’s of reporting, replace it with “What’s next,” and appeal to the lowest common denominator. Filled with undercurrents of racism, the flagrant sexploitation of women, and an old-boys network against which they ostensibly rebel, but instead take to a new testosterone-driven level, the men deliver an eye-opening throwback to the bad old days, when all of this was considered to be anti-establishment progressiveness and populist “fun.” It’s also a prescient view of the background of our current political climate and Murdoch’s eventual right-wing takeover of Fox.

The large supporting cast, depicting real figures and events, represents the old-guard competitors and the range of increasingly gung-ho staff recruited by Lamb. The roles of women are consistent with the era, limited to younger arm-candy gold-digger wives, the editor and writer of columns geared towards a female readership (Women’s Features and Astrology), and scantily-clad then topless models for the lurid photos on the infamous Page 3. There is a fascinating retro sequence tracing the vintage process of newspaper production, through manual typewriters, paste-ups, typesetting, hammering down the type and forging the metal printing plates, which further serves to identify the story as a period piece, as do the accompanying sound effects, punctuated by the clicking of typewriter keys (sound design by Adam Cork), ‘60s-style fashions, and a pyramid of metal office desks and filing cabinets (costumes and scenic design by Bunny Christie).

Robert Stanton, David Wilson Barnes, Bill Buell, Tara Summers, Eden Marryshow, Andrew Durand, and Jonny Lee Miller. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Robert Stanton, David Wilson Barnes, Bill Buell, Tara Summers, Eden Marryshow, Andrew Durand, and Jonny Lee Miller. Photo by Joan Marcus.

More indicative of our present times is the darkened set (with ominous murky lighting by Neil Austin) backed by a wall of projection screens. Though showing pages from past editions of the vying papers (projection design by John Driscoll), it foreshadows what’s to follow with the advent of the internet and the often rash and unedited posts on social media. There are also incongruous segments of awkward movement (choreography and movement direction by Lynne Page) and unexpected bursts of song (original music by Cork and music direction by Julie McBride) interspersed throughout the narrative, which add an absurdist note of tabloid-inspired flash and gimmickry, but distract from the intensity of the drama and its sardonic humor, and unnecessarily lengthen the running time.

In the end, it all comes down to knowing your audience and giving the people what they want – or what you can convince them they want. Murdoch and Lamb did precisely that, so Ink makes us question not just them, but also the taste of the public that supported The Sun and made it a success. It’s a deeply disturbing story that leaves a foul taste, but also leaves us satiated with the stars’ sensational performances.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.

Ink plays through Sunday, July 7, 2019, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre – 261 West 47th Street, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200, or purchase them online.