Late in Ink, Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller), the editor of the Sun, asks his boss, “What does Rupert Murdoch want?” Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) demurs, talking instead about his love of hotels: “You can check in, turn it over, spill a glass of wine, take a shit in the toilet, fuck in the bed, make a mess and then leave. And someone else cleans it up after—isn’t that wonderful?” Lamb takes this as his boss’s philosophy: everything is discardable, “chip wrapping.” This goes hand-in-hand with his own revelation about the five Ws: why is the least important, since it falsely “suggests there’s a plan, that there is a point to things.” Murdoch, the Sun, Fox News, Donald Trump—there is no why.
The play itself, however, written by James Graham, does not offer so legible a worldview. Chronicling the early days of Murdoch’s media empire, Ink zeroes in on his purchase of the Sun and its notorious first year, which included a topless photograph and salacious stories about the kidnapping and murder of Muriel McKay, the wife of Murdoch’s own deputy, Alick McKay (a heartbreaking Colin McPhillamy). Admittedly, there is a lot to like here: the lighting design by Neil Austin favors highly stylized darkness and spotlights, giving us the impression we are watching Lamb and Murdoch through keyholes, and Bunny Christie’s set design is spectacular, largely made up of a pile of desks that ascends to the Friedman’s ceiling like a journalistic Iron Throne. Carvel is clearly having a blast playing Murdoch as a kind of globalist Mr. Burns, and his head is so consistently hunched that I genuinely worry for the actor’s long-term neck health. In a late conversation with Lamb, in which he tries to shift the blame for the degradation of the media that followed in the wake of the Sun, Carvel repeats the refrain, “You taught me that,” each time smirking and pointing at Lamb with his steak knife.
But Graham’s script does not quite know what to do with this pair. At times, it is Lamb who leads the charge to the bottom: when they first hear of Muriel’s kidnapping, for example, he pauses only momentarily before telling his photographer, “Oy … take your camera.” Murdoch, for whom McKay is one of only a very few personal friends, is sickened and doubtful of Lamb’s approach. But in succeeding and preceding scenes, the dynamic is reversed, and Murdoch plays corrupter to a skeptical Lamb. At their final dinner, in an unfortunate and pandering moment, he tells his editor that he is considering expanding into New York: “I’m thinking of buying a TV network over there.” The audience, proud to catch the reference, laughs appreciatively, and despite Lamb’s insistence on meaninglessness, this does suggest a master plan, a coherence to history, just one the play is uncurious to investigate. Perhaps this is because Graham can’t figure out who is Mephistopheles and who is Faust. The result is an unilluminating albeit entertaining mash-up of docudrama and Richard III.