First published in mojo in August 2013
AS an eminent Australian playwright, David Williamson has an impressive back catalogue of plays and screenplays over five decades.
His insightful observation and interpretation of Australian society represented in many of these works has earned him numerous awards and keeps the audience coming in droves. And at a preview performance of the biographical play, Rupert, they did indeed come in droves.
Rupert begins in the present with house lights on as the elderly Rupert Murdoch (Sean O’Shea), engages the audience in the action to follow. This may be a little disconcerting for some people but it sets the tone for what is to come. Williamson’s two-act play is a history lesson that takes the audience on a humorous whirlwind trip through most of the 82 years of Murdoch’s life. Part drama, part comedy, part musical, Rupert cuts to the core of the media mogul’s determination and ambition to make his mark on the newspaper business and build the empire into one that today spans news and entertainment across several continents. If animated discussion after the play is anything to go by, the audience did not leave disappointed.
The older Rupert is a constant presence on stage. He narrates and illuminates the action and history of the young and impatient Rupert’s (Guy Edmonds) actions as a university student and later as he rises through the ranks of his father’s business. Learning the ropes of newspaper publishing, Rupert writes sensational headlines to sell more papers, buys up regional newspapers and gambles big on new technology all while hiring and firing various editors, competing with the Packers and displaying outspoken political opinions in his newspapers during various election campaigns. Some things don’t change.
Gough Whitlam, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher make entertaining cameo appearances and emphasise Murdoch’s international influence and standing. A dramatic highlight is the poignant reminder of the notorious headline on Murdoch’s London Sun newspaper – Gotcha! – marking the sinking of an Argentinean ship during the Falklands War, with the loss of more than 300 lives.What is surprising about this play is Williamson’s interpretation of the relationships between Rupert and the women in his life. We see that Dame Elisabeth Murdoch (Marg Downey) wasn’t impressed by her son’s behaviour as a university student in London and by some of his personal and professional behaviour later in life. At one point she warns him to be wary of business decisions that relate to London newspapers because she doesn’t want to upset the Queen. Dame Elisabeth is shown to be sympathetic to Murdoch’s second wife of 31 years, Anna Maria Torv (Daniela Farinacci), who also criticises some of Murdoch’s business decisions.
The ensemble cast play a variety of family members, business associates and international figures. HaiHa Le is humorously energetic as Wendi Deng and former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks. All deliver strong performances under the direction of Lee Lewis. With choreography by Andrew Hallsworth, set design by Stephen Curtis and lighting design by Niklas Pajanti, Rupert delivers a brilliant rendition of Williamson’s tight script.
Rupert is at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until September 28.