‘Ink’ on Broadway: How Rupert Murdoch’s ‘Sun’ Changed Tabloids—and Britain—Forever

Courtesy Joan Marcus
Courtesy Joan Marcus

It is not as grotesquely majestic as the pile of mannequins-as-dead-bodies in Taylor Mac’s Gary, but Bunny Christie’s duskily lit, toppling towers of newspapers and filing cabinets in Ink is another design marvel of this Broadway season.

Throughout this Manhattan Theatre Club production, which opens tonight at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (to June 23), journalists clamber up into little dug-out warrens to type. The desks are old and scuffed, the newspapers yellowed. Ink evokes a lost moment in media time, a time when print was king.

If James Graham’s uneven, intriguing play—with two excellent performances by Jonny Lee Miller and Bertie Carvel—has a romance around it, of this time of “hot metal,” it also seeks to impose a measured, piquant view upon its own sepia frame.

This is the story of how Rupert Murdoch (Carvel) bought The Sun in 1969, the British tabloid which not only redefined newspapers but also became both shaper and kingmaker of British politics and pop culture. (Full disclosure: I worked for Murdoch’s The Times of London for a number of years.)

The period that the play covers is The Sun’s infant years, long before Murdoch as media sun king, long before phone hacking, long before Thatcherism and Trump, and long before the paper’s own conservatism, homophobia, racism, and AIDS-fearmongering had bloomed.

The first surprise is that this play is more celebration than moral inquisition. It doesn’t put Murdoch on trial for the things he is most condemned for now; it is a mainly sympathetic origin story.

The play does, however, interrogate the inherent sexism of Page 3, The Sun’s most famous feature—a daily picture of a topless woman on the paper’s third page, only in recent years expunged, after decades of campaigning against it.

The most significant prop in Ink is the graph showing the gap between the sales of the then-market leader, the Daily Mirror, and The Sun, which the Mirror’s boss, Hugh Cudlipp (Michael Siberry), sold to Murdoch. The Mirror begins the play millions of copies ahead; Murdoch challenges his choice of editor, Larry Lamb (Miller), to beat it within a year.

The best parts of the play focus on their interactions; Lamb, bluff and direct, Murdoch more sly and obtuse; both joined by a desire to thrash the opposition and shake things up.

The first half of Ink is romp-ish; a kind of “making the band” as Lamb assembles his troupe of launch issue journalists, like his deputy editor Bernard Shrimsley (Robert Stanton), who confesses to a love of Emile Zola, and Joyce Hopkirk (Tara Summers), the women’s editor, who introduces the mainly-men to the idea of female desire.

Carvel—last seen on Broadway as the terrifying Mrs Trunchbull in Matilda—does not play Murdoch as particularly Machiavellian, but as a willful disruptor of established order. The Sun is presented as a vehicle of liberation-via-titillation, with a masthead that Lamb wants to literally lean into the future. A riotous party sequence of confetti and dancing accompanies the launch of the paper, with a cavalcade of crazy headlines. The Sun, at its birth, was fresh and new.

The audience in 2019 knows a very different Sun, and that presumably informs the play's more overwrought second half, constructed around two early Sun flashpoints.

The first is Page 3 itself, and an imagined confrontation between Stephanie Rahn, the first Page 3 girl (Rana Roy) and Lamb. Would he like his daughter to pose in this way, she asks. The confrontation is a shaming exercise, and quite right too; Page 3 was a hoary anachronism. But it also powered The Sun past the Mirror to deliver Lamb and Murdoch their much-desired victory over the Mirror; and also is one of the most iconic Fleet Street icons of all time. It drew readers and notoriety. Say ‘The Sun’ to people, and ‘Page 3’ will likely come as a reflex response.

Fascinating as it is, this confrontation between young model and editor is also completely implausible, and an extended piece of liberal wish-fulfillment for audiences in 2019. The Sun didn't regret Page 3, it didn't apologize for it. It profited it from it for years, and sneered at its critics.

The second major story the play mines is the kidnapping of Muriel McKay (Tara Summers), the wife of The Sun’s deputy chairman Alick McKay (Colin McPhillamy). The kidnappers believed they had taken Murdoch’s then-wife Anna hostage, and would eventually kill Muriel, but not before The Sun itself had reported on every twist and turn of the drama.

The play interrogates Lamb’s hardline dedication to doing so—and by extension the ruthless, story-at-all-costs modus operandi of all tabloids. Again, this is a puzzling focus, and adds another structural instability to the play itself, which up to this point has not focused on Alick McKay or his wife—so why should we care?

Again, the Sun's modus operandi was to pursue its targets ruthlessly. That didn't change in any way after the kidnapping and murder of Muriel McKay.

In both Page 3 and McKay scenarios, the story is told, the criticism made of how the Sun has behaved, and then that's that. Lamb carries on with producing his tabloid. These are presented as telling moral quandaries, but come across as more convenient plot padding. The subsidiary characters (some with very odd British accents) fade into the background.

Miller is excellent as Lamb, especially as he goes from genial boss to a figure of icier dominance.

Carvel gives Murdoch the faintest of Australian twangs, and the sense that his menace and command is quieter than the braying lieutenants that have run his tabloid newsrooms. He has an arrogance, a sense of superiority. Global domination was always his plan, Carvel’s character suggests. Just wait for the audible audience groan in 2019 when Carvel-as-Murdoch mulls the possibility of owning a New York newspaper and a TV station.

Murdoch tells Lamb: “Power replaces power with itself. You can either stand on the other side of the window, tap, tap, tap, asking to come in. Or you can establish a new line of ascension.” This is what Ink shows: the seeds that turned Murdoch into an international political and cultural power player, courted and feared by prime ministers and presidents.

Ink is squarely a play of the past, and it is at its best celebrating the giddiness of The Sun’s birth, a long time before that giddiness turned to something much darker—and which audiences in America, who may know little about The Sun, will remain ignorant of. Ink’s most stunning scene is a sudden segue to ballet, showing the old process of story emerging from reporter’s typewriter to its incarnation on the page, encompassing copy boys, stone presses, the printers, the proofs, and yes, that hot metal.

At another graphic moment, Lamb ends up covered in newsprint. It looks like an anointing with the dirtiest blood.

Read more at The Daily Beast.