The Melbourne Theatre Company’s (MTC) production of David Williamson’s 2013 play Rupert has finally made it to Sydney, via Melbourne and Washington, in late 2014.
Along the way, the MTC has acquired the services of American actor and Oscar and Emmy nominee James Cromwell to play the ageing Murdoch. By the time Rupert was staged in Sydney (where it continues until December 20) the script had been updated to cover the latest developments in the UK phone-hacking prosecutions. Such are the demands on theatre that engages with contemporary lives and events.
Rupert is at the Theatre Royal, located only a short distance from News Corp Australia’s headquarters and also from the site of an infamous 1960 Murdoch Crew v Packer Posse fist fight over a printing press. The play roams across a Murdoch universe that expands from sleepy Adelaide to embrace London, New York and Shanghai.
With its hyperactive ensemble cast (including well-known local actors Jane Turner and Danielle Cormack) and frantic pacing, director Lee Lewis has simulated the whirl of Murdoch’s big life. As Cromwell’s Murdoch sardonically observes the derring-do of his younger self (played by Guy Edmonds), the action unfolds in a frenetic mix of farce and cabaret.
When the MTC commissioned David Williamson to write an unspecified “big canvas” play, the UK’s Leveson Inquiry into the role of the press and the police had already become an unlikely television hit. Audiences were rapt in the nightly courtroom-style drama of tabloid horrors, thespian barristers and squirming witnesses.
Williamson saw his chance and took on what he calls in his play the “Apex Predator” of media and politics.
There is some irony in this choice given that, despite the divergence in their politics and life histories, Williamson and Murdoch have something in common.
Australia’s most commercially successful playwright is generally regarded by Australian theatre critics as a populist peddler of middle-brow, middle-class witticisms. Its most prominent media mogul, not dissimilarly, is widely viewed by media critics and academics as achieving commercial success by pandering to the lower expectations of audiences – and then lowering them further.