Review: Ink

Politics and analytics website FiveThirtyEight recently came out with the conclusion of their series evaluating the role of the media in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. There have been similar analyses and reckonings regarding the role of the press in the outcome of the Brexit vote, all pointing, like the FiveThirtyEight piece, to one question: how did all of this happen? 

James Graham’s new play Ink, transferred to the West End from the Almeida, proposes that our world today is nothing but the natural culmination of a shift in media culture set into motion a long time ago.

It’s an indirect connection, however. The play doesn’t directly address anything about the present day: it’s all set in 1969 and 1970, and concerns the purchase of failing newspaper The Sun by an Australian upstart named Rupert Murdoch, who woos Larry Lamb, a working-class former reporter with a chip on his shoulder, to be its editor. Murdoch’s goal: to embrace capitalism, not any lofty notions of journalistic responsibility, in order to crush the narrow-minded elites of Fleet Street. Most of all, he wants to surpass the circulation numbers of the most popular newspaper in the world, The Mirror— which just happens to be Lamb’s former paper, where he never received the editorship he felt he deserved.

Though Murdoch is the more internationally famous name, Lamb, played with slouchy Northern charm by Richard Coyle, spends most of the play as the guiltier party in the game of dragging the ideals of journalistic integrity into the populist, lowest-common-denominator mud. Murdoch is the distant, awkward money man, prone to fits of scruples and prudishness; Lamb accepts his mission to give the people what they want, to do whatever it takes to beat the Mirror, and (almost) never wavers from it.

Though his role is the smaller of the two central characters, Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch begins the play, and is magnetically fascinating. Carvel is an improbable chameleon. His voice is incredibly distinctive, his choices in physicality and characterization all similarly strange, and yet every character he plays seems completely different and completely human. He is always himself (or at least whatever version of that appears onstage), but he can always seem to shift that same essence into something different. Murdoch is no exception.

Rupert Goold finds the perfect staging language to complement Graham’s not-quite-naturalistic script. This, along with Graham’s sparkly dialogue, help elevate what is otherwise a fairly standard structure and recognizable Fleet Street Faustian story arc. Clever movement sequences and even a bit of singing create cinematic-feeling montages, most of which are recognizable from any movie about young upstarts: the “getting the gang of misfits together” montage, the “spitballing new ideas” montage, the “look at our successes” montage. Even if they follow a slightly familiar pattern, they are– much like the newspaper this band of outcasts is trying to build– cheeky and fun, and thus mostly avoid cliche. As the play moves into its darker second act, the pace grows even more driving.

The protagonists’ moral downfall (and it’s surely not a spoiler to say that there is one, since both the play’s structure and actual history make this obvious) hinges on two crises, both of which center around women: one murdered, and one naked. The latter subplot introduces a laudable, if not wholly integrated, attempt to include the perspective of a woman of color in this very white, very male world and play. It also somehow comes off as seeming more depraved, more scandalous, and more heartless than the murder. Graham’s script seems generally uncertain about how to draw the moral lines around what Lamb and Murdoch are trying to do, when to suggest they have gone too far. Though it’s clearly intentional that the play lacks a clear right and wrong, the characters lack a clear moral compass, too, which is a detriment when telling the story of men selling their souls for success. Lamb and Murdoch trade off moments of hesitation, only to be seduced once more by their own power and success– but these waverings don’t always come off as totally logical. They seem to swap capitalist ruthlessness for scrupulous reticence as needed to balance the other’s state of mind, not out of their own convictions.

Lamb and Murdoch’s rivals are relentlessly painted as stuffy, snobby, and elitist, with only glimpses of sympathy for their position. Given that all the weight of our present media crises falls firmly on their side of things, perhaps the play can stand to stack its cards– at least at first– in favor of the broad-minded populists. But with hollow protestations of working-class solidarity on the one side and ivory tower elitism on the other, Graham certainly presents two dispiriting poles, with very little hope for what could come in the middle.

But, as Murdoch says in the play, it’s a writer’s job to hold the mirror up to society– it’s not their fault if we don’t like what we see.



Review: Charles III

One year in middle school, my very liberal social studies teacher (the same one who went on periodic rants about how Andrew Jackson should be taken off the twenty– which he should be, by the way) taught us about the odd little laws encoded in some of our state’s land use and real estate legislation, including fun little tidbits like it being illegal to sell certain pieces of land to African Americans. Obviously these were eventually superseded by civil rights legislation, but that’s also why they remained on the books, inactive. It’s amusing and in some sense slightly chilling to realize that there are arcane little bits of retrograde weirdness lying dormant within our legal system, perhaps just waiting for someone who is sufficiently clever and bigoted to find a way to carve them out.

In England, of course, that vestigial legal oddity is hidden in plain sight: the monarchy. It’s still there. It sucks up massive amounts of taxpayer money. They have no power, but because England lacks a written constitution, that fact is maybe more of a gentleman’s agreement than a law. At least, that’s the tenuous situation that Mike Bartlett’s fabulous King Charles III, now on the West End after opening last spring at the Almeida, proposes.

Shortly after the death of his mother but before his own official coronation, now-King Charles is growing anxious and perhaps (as Camilla says) a bit angsty about the end of his long wait and his imminent rise to… well, not power, exactly. Anxious to make the monarchy meaningful, and spurred on by some dubious politicians, Charles declines to sign a bill into law, setting off a chain of events that seem as if they might plunge the country into civil war.

Also it’s written entirely in iambic pentameter.

King Charles III is Shakespearean not only in its language and scope, but in its approach to the question of power. Prince Harry raises what I sometimes see as the central question of Shakespeare’s historical tragedies: can’t bring a modern prince mean not having to give away your soul? Charles himself has very much the air of Richard II– petulant, power-hungry, and increasingly bordering on madness– yet also undeniably appealing in his bumbling yearning for self-definition and winning candor with the audience. Tim Pigott-Smith’s marvelous performance keeps the character from flying off into caricature, rooting him soundly in something touching and human.

The other characters privileged to speak to the audience are William (Oliver Chris) and Kate (Lydia Wilson), the latter of whom nearly steals the show with the revelation of an iron will and powerful ambition. There are gestures towards Lady Macbeth as she none-too-subtly steers the somewhat hapless William towards power, but Kate’s masterful command of the trappings of modern-day royalty are unparalleled in the play, and she’s ultimately too canny to just condemn.

The one major misstep is Prince Harry’s strangely underdeveloped subplot. Disillusioned in a Prince Hal-ish fashion with life and royalty, he falls in love with a commoner, a flat Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose dearth of personality leaves their storyline nowhere to go. It’s a shame, as Richard Goulding’s tortured Harry serves, when he is alone, as a neat parallel to his father’s crisis of self, and as mentioned above, the potential for Shakespearean-inspired exploration and allusion is rich (director Rupert Goold pointed out Harry’s similarities to Hal in an interview) But Bartlett ultimately seems to lose track of the thread, tying it off in an abrupt but not unexpected manner. But this is basically the only false note in an otherwise masterfully orchestrated piece.

The morning after seeing King Charles III, I woke up to the latest from Ferguson, MO, and the grand jury’s failure to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. On the one hand, this seems to exist on an incomparably different scale from an often silly British political drama. But the question in both cases is the dangerous ease with which our democratic systems can collapse in the face of someone determined to ignore the unwritten rules, or to lean too heavily on the letter of a law we thought we’d all agreed to ignore. One of Barlett’s most brilliant choices is to make Charles basically right: the bill he declines to sign is a draconian-sounding privacy law that would curtail the freedom of the press. But, as the Prime Minister in the play says again and again, the question at hand is not the content of the bill, but the principle behind Charles’s action. It’s not a monarch’s role to dictate policy by omission any more than it seems fair for a prosecutor to manipulate an indictment.

And in this, Charles’ fears and his rebellious subjects’ fears are one and the same: the fear of loss of control, of society suddenly ceasing the function the way you always thought it did. That after a lifetime of waiting and preparing, it turns out there’s nothing at the end of it after all. The heart of the play is deeply human, and in this Bartlett is Shakespearean once again: somehow, the stories of kings always seem to end up as tragedies.

Review: Our Town

It feels arrogant to even try to write a review of David Cromer’s production of Our Town, previously at the Barrow Street Theater in New York and now at the Almeida. The fact is that it’s basically perfect. David Cromer understands Our Town, and translates that understanding into a deeply moving and perfectly simple production.

Our Town is a play that I lose track of sometimes. Like Romeo and Juliet, it starts to feel so over-discussed, so misinterpreted, so easy to over-simplify, that I find myself just riding the waves of what I’m pretty sure I know about it and forgetting what’s actually there. Yes, it’s a play I was utterly desperate to act in when I was about 14 and saw it as pretty much a vehicle for a super-sad monologue– but it’s more than that.

It’s also a play that I think tends to take a beating when it comes to the question of “The Canon”– because how much more insular and privileged can you get than a play that, apparently, is all about nostalgia for the good old days when everyone was Christian and white and married their high school sweetheart?

But a really good production, like this one, is a reminder that the play is more than that, too. I’m sure you can find plenty of things written by people much smarter than me about the cracks in the veneer– Mrs. Gibbs’ never-realized dream to see Paris, Simon Stimpson’s drinking, all that death. But I think also there is the fact that nostalgia demands a homogeneity of audience that the play both assumes and rejects. On the one hand, the stage manager always addresses the audience with a homey, ‘we’re in this together,’ feel. He says ‘you know,’ and ‘you know what I’m talking about’ a lot. We’re assumed to be familiar with life in places like Grover’s Corners, in theory.

But does that assumption spring from the fact that Thornton Wilder is assuming we, too, lived in somewhere like Grovers’ Corners? Or just that we would recognize it, even if we’re peering in from the outside? I found myself thinking this time through that maybe we’re meant to bring the contradictions in with us. My ancestors sure as hell didn’t live in Grover’s Corners, they were busy on Ellis Island. But the play doesn’t have to point it out for me to know it.

And, of course, none of these actors would live in Grover’s Corners, either. All of the actors (American David Cromer as the Stage Manager included) employ their native accents, they are fairly racially diverse. They wear contemporary clothes. It’s not about seeing yourself in them, or any pretense of universality. It’s just a story.