By Paige Allen
June 17, 2019
How far are you willing to go to win?
James Graham is not the first playwright to explore this question. Yet, when placed at the heart of a true story about real people with the power to irrevocably change print journalism — all media, even — the question grips us with urgency and power, even if we know the answer: as far as it takes.
Graham’s INK, which opened on the West End in 2017 before coming to Broadway this April, follows Rupert Murdoch (played by Bertie Carvel, who recently won a Tony for his impeccable character work in the role) and Larry Lamb (played by a fiercely energetic Jonny Lee Miller) as they acquire the failing tabloid The Sun in 1969 and set out on a year-long quest to beat the sales of their most successful competitor, the Mirror.
Lamb assembles a team of editors, writers, and models — not to mention one awkward photographer named Beverly (Andrew Durand) who delivers a crushing monologue in Act Two about capturing images — to build his new newspaper. The funniest scene in the play takes place in the newsroom as the staff brainstorms ideas for topics people would like to read about. Smoking, free stuff, and sex are among the subjects named. As Lamb narrows down the list to the top three, the word he circles first is telling: WIN.
We can’t help but root for Lamb and his ragtag team. Their goal, after all, seems noble: to create a whole new type of newspaper, one that defies the “rules” of the journalistic establishment which, Murdoch declares, were put into place to keep those in power safe and changemakers like Lamb out. Director Rupert Goold’s staging (made possible by scenic designer Bunny Christie’s mountain of a set) visually reinforces who is on top and who is trying to claw their way up.
In the second act, the play shifts from a dark and grown-up version of Newsies to a journalistic Richard III as Lamb becomes ever more obsessed with beating the Mirror in sales and ever more willing to cross lines (and friends) in order to do so. If Miller’s Lamb was a bit manic in the first act, he spirals out of control in the second — with, I’m certain, some help from Goold’s expertise in directing such characters (his credits include Richard III and American Psycho, after all).
The deeper we get into the play, the more we sympathize with Lamb’s adversary, Chairman of the Mirror Hugh Cudlipp (played by Michael Siberry). Cudlipp is a member of the old guard who sees the new guard barrelling toward him and is powerless to stop it. As The Sun becomes bolder and brasher, Cudlipp’s warnings to Lamb about creating an appetite that needs to be fed ring in our ears. Cudlipp begs Lamb to give up The Sun, repeatedly offering him a job as editor of the Mirror, but Lamb — like the Shakespearean Richard he so resembles — has set his life upon a cast and will stand the hazard of the die.
While the play emphatically tells us that “why?” is not the question we should be asking (it’s “what’s next?” that’s important), the “why?” behind the actions of the irreverent Murdoch and the ambitious Lamb make the play a much more fascinating — and dark — tale. The fight is personal, the motives impure. Murdoch seeks to cause a “great disruption” that will shake Fleet Street to its core. Lamb wants to be the editor of the best tabloid in the country; if it can’t be the Mirror, he’ll build another himself. For all their talk of creating the people’s paper, a tabloid that reflects real lives and serves those the Mirror has forgotten, Murdoch and Lamb are undoubtedly flawed men out for revenge — Murdoch admits it — on an establishment that has wronged them.
In one of the play’s pivotal scenes, when Lamb makes his historic proposition to model Stephanie Rahn (Rana Roy), he does not sugarcoat his intentions. He wants to win, and he’ll pay any price to gain readership.
As an actress, Roy — like the importance of Rahn’s character — sneaks up on you. It is not until the play’s final scenes that the strength and intelligence in Rahn (and in Roy’s acting) truly shine. When Rahn demands to be acknowledged, she grows larger than life, signifying how the bodies of women of color have been used for the gain of white men for so long and in so many ways.
The psyche of the play — dark, messy, precipitous — is conjured by the impressive work of INK’s design team, steeping the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre at the Manhattan Theatre Club in the atmosphere the designers create. Christie’s set is a behemoth of a newsroom — desks stacked upon desks reaching higher and higher, typewriters and newspapers and (in Act Two) ripped pieces of paper scattered about, and oversized metal Ws from a printing press which glow and represent the five Ws of journalism (who, what, when, where, and why). Doorways within the mountain are at times hidden and at others ablaze with a hellish light. Neil Austin’s Tony-award winning lighting is dramatic and shadowy; his thin, focused beams become threads in the web Lamb is weaving to catch himself. Adam Cork further channels a nightmarish newsroom through his original music and sound design, creating a soundscape which ranges from the clacking of machines to vaudeville-style tunes.
Never has an explanation of how a newspaper gets printed been as exciting as in INK, narrated more by the design than the words. The audience collectively holds its breath as we watch the pouring of hot lead, the stage almost entirely black except for the stream of glowing lead as it runs down the funnel.
And the ominous black ink stains everything. It spills over the desks and floor of the set. It drips and covers the screens through Jon Driscoll’s projections. And it eventually stains Lamb’s hands and shirt, darker and more permanent than blood, when he commits an act he can never undo.
The relevancy of INK is impossible to deny. The tabloid culture broke open by The Sun fifty years ago has only increased, exacerbated by the Internet and social media. Segments of broadcast news dedicated to viewing viral videos, “news stories” available through Snapchat, clickbait articles, fake news — the list of heirs to The Sun goes on and on. While Lamb at times appears to be a worthy hero standing up to an elitist establishment, when I look at our media today, I can’t help but feel Cudlipp may have been right. His “vegetables with some pudding for dessert” journalism would be a welcome change to the “bag of sweets” offered by Lamb and his successors.
Yet, at least in my eyes, there is sympathy left for Lamb as well. From the beginning, Murdoch made clear he wanted someone who would go as far as it took; he just didn’t know how far that would be. Lamb pushed The Sun that far when no one else would.
And it was ultimately Lamb, not Murdoch, who would suffer the consequences. As Rahn points out, Murdoch gets to dispose of this situation and move on. But for Rahn and Lamb, The Sun is forever hammered into their story, stained on their lives like ink.
Perhaps the most important question isn’t “why?” or “what’s next?” or “how far?,” then. It’s “at what cost?”
BCS-friendliness rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The rating for this show is a little skewed for me, since I had the pleasure of seeing the show with (and on the dime of) my parents. Our tickets were $79 each on Ticketmaster. TodayTix offers tickets for most days at a minimum of $59 and $35 same-day rush tickets. I believe TKTS also had INK tickets available that day, but I’m unsure of the price.
We sat high in the mezzanine and had an amazing view of the stage. So much is happening at once, so it was incredible to see it all from above, especially the mechanical trapdoor. That being said, the tops of the projection screens were a bit cut off from our view because of the proscenium, but I didn’t feel like it inhibited the experience much.