The world of the news: MTC’s Rupert

First staged by the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2013, David Williamson’s Rupert is a cabaret-style ‘This Is Your Life’ of Rupert Murdoch, a man who needs no introduction. The second richest Australian who ever lived, as Williamson’s note in the program tells us, Murdoch is everywhere – in the films and television we watch, in the news we consume, in the way we think about the world – whether we are aware of it or not, whether we like it or not. Williamson’s Rupert is “a kind of Rupert Cabaret, in which he invites the audience to sit down and listen to the real story of his life, not the story peddled by lefty, inner-city, latte-sipping, acai berry-eating critics.” Directed by Lee Lewis, it is a carousel indicative of the media-saturated age we live in, where information is at our fingertips, where everything is apparently bigger bolder faster louder higher stronger better.

Headlined by Rupert himself, played by James Cromwell with Guy Edmonds as Young Rupert, Rupert doesn’t stop talking. Part stage-manager, emcee, host and editor of his own life, he brings events and situations to pass in quick succession, in a slick and stylised manner. The eight other actors in the show play something like one-hundred different characters between them, most of whom are pushed ludicrously close to caricature which, given the size of Murdoch’s empire, is perhaps permissible. But never for a moment do we feel like these are characters we can care for, let alone characters based on actual people of some power in their own time; Williamson’s frantically-moving script means that we have barely met a character before they’ve been removed from Murdoch’s story because they were not crucial to the running and accumulating of his media empire, or because they stood in the way of his overreaching ambitions.
Likened by Williamson and others to Shakespeare’s Richard III, Rupert is more similar to a pantomime than any kind of Shakespeare; without a threat equivalent to that of Richmond, Rupert does not stop accruing and building his stronghold on the global media. The News of the World scandal, which forms much of the second act, could perhaps be his Richmond at a squint, but he moves through that with all the subtlety and contrition of a very large and very heavily armoured vehicle. Like the man himself, this show lacks subtlety which is not necessarily a bad thing; it just makes the second act tremendously long, drawn-out and rather boring. Perhaps most significantly, and to its detriment, it breaks the number one rule of dramatic writing anywhere: show, don’t tell, and it breaks it on a grand scale. Every scene is narrated by Rupert, stars Rupert, and is essentially about Rupert; there is no real interaction with the others apart from showing him getting what he wants, and there is certainly no depth to the interactions at all. There isn’t really much dramatic action – of beats, actions, wants, needs, desires, conflict – between characters at all. Simply Rupert saying ‘anything you can do, I can do bigger and better,’ and instantly getting what he wants; there is no delayed gratification, or sense of dramatic arc or pay-off in Rupert at all.
Billed as a “theatrically inventive, often hilarious, cabaret… [in which] Rupert tap dances (sometimes literally) his way through his first newspaper acquisitions, discoes toward his American breakthrough, [and] shares a fiery flamenco with Margaret Thatcher,” I wished there was more spectacle, more pizzazz and flair, more reveling in the deliciously over-the-top figure that is Rupert and all the opportunities that are afforded by successes and actions such as his. I was expecting a kind of scintillating political caper a la David Hare crossed with the showmanship of Keating!, but instead we got an occasionally frenetic and endless parade of talking heads, caricatures and an endless barrage of Rupert extolling the myriad virtues of being Rupert. (It’s no coincidence either that the last scene plays out on a stage scattered with loose pages and torn books…)
Stephen Curtis’ set and costumes are all extraordinarily functional – a black-drape bound set, with a projection screen at the rear of the stage, and a white half-tab curtain used to create transitions, while the cast are attired in ever-changing forms of business wear as the decades roll over, with some flashes of colour in Elisabeth Murdoch, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Ronald Reagan. Projections are used heavily in this show too and, like Rupert’s own newspaper headlines (and those of Kelvin McKEnzie), are as subtle as a brick wall despite often being clever. Niklas Pajanti’s lighting is similarly functional, though there is often not much more than a series of spotlights, washes and a few colours, likewise Kelly Ryall’s sound and music, which helps set the place and time.

When Murdoch’s recent comments on twitter about the forthcoming Exodus film led to much ire and his attempts to deflect the situation with comments such as “calm down!” and “change the subject” failed, Michael Lallo in the Sydney Morning Herald wrote that Murdoch has been described by one social media expert as an effective user, and that regardless of his views, he is “one of the few people helping Twitter remain vaguely interesting.” With platforms such as Twitter and instant communication with millions – if not, billions – of people around the globe, it’s relatively easy for Murdoch to hide in plain sight, issuing forth opinions as they come to him, and things happen because he is Rupert Murdoch. Williamson’s play ends with a moment of reflection which only confirms this. ‘A journalist once asked me what I believe in,’ he says (and I’m paraphrasing here). ‘I said the usual things – free media, low taxes, instant news. But that’s not the answer. The answer is Rupert Murdoch. I believe in Rupert Murdoch.’ And despite the razzle-dazzle of sixty-odd years of playing companies and individuals off against each other, of accruing a vast empire whilst evading every kind of snag thrown at him like the invincible juggernaut he is, this is the one line in the whole play which resonates, which cuts through the projected image and hits the heart of the man inside the suit. If only this whole charade could have started with that line, maybe we could have got a piece of theatre more substance than thinly-sketched caricature.

Theatre playlist: 77. Right Here, Right Now, Fatboy Slim

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