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Rupert - review

Rupert - review

Jun 29, 2015 Theatre

We’ve been rather inoculated from Mr Rupert Murdoch in New Zealand. He’s had bigger fish to fry, take-over, and monetise. He used to hold a big stake in Independent Newspapers (sold to Fairfax in 2003), News Corp has a big chunk of Sky TV and this year he’s taken a 14.9 per cent share in APN, owner of NZME and publisher of the NZ Herald. Still, we’ve largely been able to watch Murdochian machinations from afar, without too much concern for our own market.

The 84-year-old media mogul has been making the news again with a succession plan that has been compared to the dramas of King Lear and The Godfather. For this play, David Williamson went for a smarmy Richard III who never meets his Bosworth.

One thing that might surprise you in Auckland Theatre Company’s Kensington Swan screened production is that Murdoch dabbles in tap dance. Well, Damien Avery’s Rupert the younger anyway. Stuart Devenie’s Murdoch the elder is hosting and starring in his own this is your life – “my story, my way” – and he casts the dashing Avery to play his younger self (even through his 50s+, because why wouldn’t you?).

Young Rupert gets two key pieces of advice which he holds onto throughout his career. The first, from a tutor hired by his mother: history is shaped by the forces of greed and fear. The second, from a wily newspaper editor: grab your audience in the first sentence – shock and horrify.

Director Colin McColl and the cast have great fun lampooning the Aussies, Brits and Yanks as Rupert builds his Empire from humble beginnings with a struggling family Adelaide rag, to the heights of Fox News. In Australia he pisses off the Packer clan for selling “better bullshit than our bullshit”. In England he’s the colonial upstart who takes on the establishment. In America, he’s the capitalist King. With Murdoch in the storyteller’s seat, he’s a folk-hero, the underdog who did good and made heaps of money in the process. There are hisses (of jealousy?) when he confides he’s never paid more than 7 per cent tax without breaking any laws.

There are some brilliant cameos along the way. Stephen Lovatt is on point as Ronald Reagan, and a lighter-than-air Tony Blair. Hera Dunleavy’s Margaret Thatcher has quite the political libido.  A wigged Jennifer Ward-Lealand makes for an uncanny Rebekah Brooks and JJ Fong’s Wendi Deng is another highlight. Arlo MacDiarmid and Adam Gardiner add liberal doses of comedy in a cavalcade of walk-on roles, and Simon Prast is trotted out whenever the show needs a bit of bite.

It calls itself a cabaret, but it’s not really. There are a few dance numbers thrown in, which the actors take to with goofy aplomb, but you know the real Murdoch would demand much higher production values. Elizabeth Whiting’s evening-wear adds a touch of class, and the AV design, featuring tabloid front-pages and cartoon caricatures by Jeff Bell, is a great way of adding to the experience.

As a biography-history, the show gets a little stuck in a ‘this happened, then this happened’ rhythm. We get the headlines, without much depth or emotional weight. Ward-Lealand’s Anna Murdoch, who flicks in and out as an ineffectual moral compass, deserves more fleshing out.

The play makes a strong argument for the power of media influence, as Murdoch backs the political horses most favourable to his business interests and willing to neuter the monopolies commissions of the world. Thatcher, Bush, Blair… It’s Murdoch wot won it again, and again, and again.

Of course this Murdoch makes out that these behind-the-throne deals as the most innocent things in the world… along with sleaze, made-up stories, and page 3 girls. Avery plays Murdoch as a whiz-bang merchant, getting further by buying up and making big gambles. There are only a few  times that we really see him under pressure. There’s the Black Monday stock market crash which puts him in a collision with the banks. Then there’s the phone hacking fallout. What’s interesting here is he doesn’t care about the ethics of what his staff were up to. His reaction is dictated by his desire to preserve his B Sky B television deal at all costs.

Devenie is a firecracker Murdoch, and its great to see him back on stage. But too often the script has him passing the time in the executive chair at the back of the stage, thumping a copy of his biography. But finally, spectacularly, after two hours plus of hagiography he unleashes and defiantly dares his critics to tell him he’s wrong. The other actors lay into him, and a few audience members get into it too. Even ACT’s David Seymour, on opening night, was prompted to shout a comment, presumably in support.

If you’re looking for the morality lesson in it all, it’s this: don’t mess with Murdoch. As fair and balanced as Fox News, Rupert entertains while it informs. Sure, it could be more insightful, come at the man from a few more perspectives, but as Murdoch would say: lighten up, it’s entertainment.

Rupert runs to July 19 at Q Theatre, atc.co.nz

Photo credit: Michael Smith

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