New York City Theater
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
The Middle Ages had “Everyman,” that medieval morality play where only Good Deeds accompanies the hero to the grave. We now have “Ink,” James Graham’s nasty, complex, seductive whopper of a play about the rivalry between two British tabloid newspapers in which making a bargain with the Devil is the path to power. When, in the opening scene a rising platform brings two men from what could be the pit of Hell or, later, when steam rises from the composing room as if from a foundry belching smoke and noise, while some scenes are set in the Printer’s Devil Pub, you have a work about the morally damned.
Loosely based on newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch and his editor, Larry Lamb, these are men for whom the bottom line is the only line. They dwell in the subterranean abodes of ambition and betrayal. Under Rupert Goold’s brilliant direction and Lynne Page’s essential choreography and movement, “Ink” is also funny and exciting, showing how depraved we can be – and, at times, are. Aiming low wins the day.
The time is 1969, the setting London’s Fleet Street, the heart of the nation’s newspapers. Leading the circulation pack is the Mirror. Way behind is Murdock’s newly acquired Sun. Murdock is bent on overtaking the Mirror, hiring its former editor, Lamb, as his enforcer, a man who doesn’t “believe in anything you can’t get ink on your fingers from,” says Murdock.
Offering various editorial jobs to washed-up hacks, Lamb gathers his “ship of undesirables” and begins to turn the business around by going for the sensational -- a kidnapping here, photos of nude girls there. The Sun becomes a populist paper for the “forgotten people,” its motto: “Forward With the People.” That it’s also soulless, “pandering to base instincts,” is nothing more than the price to be paid for success.
As Murdoch, Bertie Carvel is sleaze personified. His mantra, “who needs friends when you have readers,” permeates the setting as would rotting garbage. Yet, for all his pipsqueak machinations, Carvel makes Murdoch a figure whose understandable desire for recognition is his underlying motivation. Never a stock villain, Carvel punches up Murdoch’s growth from ambitious youth to sinister mogul. (He will later acquire Fox News) Matching Carvel, Jonny Lee Miller’s Lamb goes beyond immorality into amorality. Insolent, short-tempered, heedless and greedy, he’s a single-minded force.
Michael Siberry stands out as Mirror publisher Hugh Cudlipp as do Colin McPhillamy as deputy chairman Sir Alick McKay and Rana Roy as a wise model. Bunny Christie’s scenic design of mounds of desks and filing cabinets captures the messy, vivid news racket as do Neil Austin’s lighting, Jon Driscoll’s projections and Adam Cork’s original music and sound design.
“Ink” is devastating in its depiction of a “noble pursuit” gone sour. “Playing to people’s fears, their hatred, and anger,” news becomes a commodity that sinks into its own hell. “Ink” is a portrait of what was, what is and, Lord help us, what is to come.
-David A. Rosenberg
May 19, 2019