Ink – the birth of tabloid journalism

Ink – the birth of tabloid journalism
Image: INK at New Theatre. Photos © Chris Lundie for New Theatre

Ink, written by British playwright, James Graham in 2017, traces the events of 1969 when a brash upstart from Australia threw a proverbial spanner into the establishment presses of Fleet Street, London. Rupert Murdoch had already begun growing a modest media empire Down Under, but he was determined to get his fingers blackened in one of the most competitive newspaper markets on the planet. After only one year in London, the “dirty digger” had helped turn the floundering The Sun broadsheet into a top-circulating sensationalist tabloid, upending Fleet Street and changing news culture forever. 

INK at New Theatre. Photos © Chris Lundie for New Theatre

The New Theatre is currently staging a production of Ink, and, with a running time of almost 3 hours and a cast of seventeen, it’s a monumental undertaking.  

“It’s such a big show that it really wasn’t until the week before we opened that we started getting it running together and knowing what a beast we had on our hands…a beautiful beast, but a beast,” says director and New Theatre Artistic Director, Louise Fischer.

“You’re dealing with a kind of amazing time in the ‘60s…so the research that we started to do was going down these beautiful rabbit holes and what that world was like, and that’s what we tried to capture.”

INK at New Theatre. Photos © Chris Lundie for New Theatre
INK at New Theatre. Photos © Chris Lundie for New Theatre

Graham’s lengthy play is a chronicled, fairly objective presentation of the first year of a radical new newspaper during the last year of a tumultuous decade. Murdoch, though obviously central to the story, is not really the main character in the play, nor the most villainous. That title belongs to Larry Lamb who, in real life, really was much more ruthless than Murdoch at that time. 

Adrian Adam plays Murdoch in the New Theatre production, and he imbues him with crass bombast, yet also with a conscientious hesitation. 

“It’s a younger Murdoch, not the same person we know now,” explains Fischer.

Nick Curnow’s Lamb, on the other hand, bulldozes through ethically questionable decisions with the veneer of astute professionalism.

INK at New Theatre. Photos © Chris Lundie for New Theatre
INK at New Theatre. Photos © Chris Lundie for New Theatre

“James Graham, I think he’s such a beautiful writer in that he doesn’t judge in his writing, he just presents and let’s the audience have the argument about the decisions that were made and things like that,” adds Fischer. 

Simon Bolton plays Hugh Cudlipp, the chairman of the International Publishing Corporation, which owned several leading mastheads including The Sun and The Sun. Cudlipp is a foil to Murdoch and Lamb, representing the conservative old guard. Bolton plays him with gravitas.

The wonderful Les Asmussen plays several bit parts, but most significantly – and endearingly – the role of Sir Alick McKay. The kidnapping and murder of Muriel McKay, Sir Alick’s wife, is sensationalised by The Sun in what becomes both their highest and lowest point. One of the most poignant, devastating scenes in the play is Sir Alick’s reaction to news of his wife’s death. Asmussen is simply heart-rending.

INK at New Theatre. Photos © Chris Lundie for New Theatre

“You go on a journey, and even in the second act when there’s some serious tragedy, you’ve still got this perverse black humour,” says Fischer. “But I don’t think we could go on that journey if we hadn’t already become attached to the characters.”

That’s true. By the time we reach this dark point we have become well acquainted with the characters, so it hits very hard.  

Another notorious moment for The Sun was the introduction of its infamous Page 3 girl, a different nubile model who appeared in various states of undress in three-column splendour. Mariah Stock plays Stephanie Rahn, the first to hold the dubious honour of Page 3 girl, and she plays her as youthfully confident, a little naive, but quite sassy. 

There aren’t a lot of meaty roles for women in this play, but the female cast does a great job, each in multiple roles. Emily Weare plays Joyce Hopkirk, the women’s editor, one of the only major positions on the testosterone-fuelled staff of The Sun. She adds contrast visually as well as in gender, wearing a striking lime skivvy and coloured beads. Weare plays Hopkirk as gritty but also struggling with the role of being a champion of women’s interests in such a misogynistic environment. 

INK at New Theatre. Photos © Chris Lundie for New Theatre

The set is minimal, sparse and industrial, with a few nominal pieces of furniture to indicate different locations. Pixelated projections on a back wall depict 1960s London with a nostalgic newsprint photo quality. There is also a retro soundtrack that plays before the show and during intermission, as well as during various scenes. 

“It has been quite a joy to work on this one in a weird way, just because of finding out about a whole era, but also, you know, I’ve been blessed with a terrific cast who have just taken such personal responsibility in telling the story,” says Fischer. “I was getting 1am Facebook messages saying ‘I’ve just found this by The Kinks, or ‘I just found this by The Yardbirds’. So the cast just loved the soundtrack as well.”

Ink is long and dialogue heavy, yet gripping throughout, mostly likely because we know it’s all true, but also because, alas, it’s all still so relevant now. 

Until June 29

New Theatre, 542 King St, Newtown

newtheatre.org.au/ink

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