Is Ink indelible? Not really. Is it the talk of the theatrical week? Absolutely. For true and for trivial reasons. It is written by James Graham. It is directed by Rupert Goold, whose theatrical pizzazz could make Theresa May look as if she were rollerskating. It has in the rise of Rupert Murdoch a cracking subject. And â this is the aspect that gets the play all over the papers â it is about the importance or not of journalists, who love seeing themselves centre stage and writing about it. Especially when there is the possibility of spotting a gargoyle version of their/our colleagues. Few things are sweeter than recognition entwined with repudiation. On press night the Almeida was heaving with hacks.
Grahamâs play may have surprised them. In relating the rise of the Sun, and of Rupert Murdoch, it does not blame. It charts. It shows a youngish Murdoch squaring up to various rigid establishments: the English class system and union regulations. At times you might almost use the word âprinciplesâ in the same sentence as his name. It begins with the mogul buying the Sun and approaching Larry Lamb to edit it. It ends with him changing the paperâs allegiances, about to welcome the politics of Margaret Thatcher and to move out of Fleet Street to Wapping.
Graham is often described as a political playwright, but though his plays have a public dimension they are not partisan or even especially argumentative. He is a writer of inventive documentary who has a gift for identifying historical episodes which reverberate in the present. He made his name with This House, about the precarious days of the Labour government in the late 70s. He surpassed that play with the rather underpraised Privacy, a drama about the internet that dramatically invaded the audience, practising what it preached. Now as newsprint is under threat, he gives us the history of a tabloid.
Ink is aptly noisy â verbally and visually; Bunny Christieâs design sends headlines swarming all over the back of the stage on a rickety, cleverly cantilevered mound of desks. The sound of typewriters rings out like tap dancers. The action â this is a Rupert Goold trademark â is often on the cusp of a chorus line. Its best numbers â a vivid mime of hot-metal printing with molten lead waterfalling down the stage â outstrip the dialogue, which has some lumps of exposition and implausibilities: did Lamb really quail at the prospect of sticking womenâs breasts on page 3?
Not that there is anything implausible about Richard Coyleâs performance as Lamb: he is all finely tuned crude ambition. He has strong â um â support from Sophie Stanton as the one woman in the office not on account of her bosom, and from Tim Steed as the prim deputy who can âturn ugly into an art formâ.
As Murdoch, Bertie Carvel is, like the proprietor himself, often away from the action â but super-present when he turns up. He surprises by letting the mogulâs pugnaciousness look relaxed, showing the power of Murdochâs watchfulness. He does not waste words or gestures; he does not so much move as uncoil.
His main means of expression are his hands: energetic and awkward, the hands of an able outsider. They spring around with independent life; when inert, they hang like hooks at his sides. Itâs as if his arms have been put on back to front. Carvel has long been one of the most continually self-disguising of actors. Magnificently ballooning as Matildaâs Miss Trunchbull, steadily betraying in tellyâs Doctor Foster. Unmissable as Murdoch.