‘This is my show,’ says Murdoch, played by the superb Stuart Devinie, at the opening of the show. And it was. David Williamson, Australia’s leading playwright, writes RUPERT from Rupert’s point of view, which allows him to be wittier than he really is; a better speaker, better looking, it even allows for the inclusion of an athletic version of a younger self, played with energy and enthusiasm by Damien Avery. Rupert’s point of view is sometimes outrageous, often entertaining, but inevitably means the character is not forced into any confrontation that is not on his own terms.
The two Ruperts are nearly always on stage, and all the other parts are played by an ensemble cast with a series of wigs, hats and voices to differentiate them. There are some great character studies, particularly Stephen Lovatt as Ronald Reagan and Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Rebekah Brooks. The series of small turns encourage boldness, but also silliness, and sometimes the words can barely be heard for the false teeth and strange accents that actors sometimes veer in and out of. The physicality reaches for a broad humour too, from tight yellow shorts on Frank Packer’s sons to a wobbly, lustful Margaret Thatcher – surely (hopefully) a wild figment of imagination. The cast seem to be having a wonderful time, the odd eyebrow falling off to general hilarity, even Devenie has to pull himself back together at one point. Most of the rest of the cast are also ATC stalwarts, Simon Prast, Adam Gardiner and Hera Dunleavy, with JJ Fong (Flat3) and Arlo MacDiarmid joining in the fun.
Mostly the audience is with them, but between the chuckles was the odd yawn too. Williamson has gone down the route of covering everything quickly, rather than making his dirty digger dig deep. The advantage of this is that it gives the audience a potted history of events and facts that underline Murdoch’s extraordinary achievements and focus. Murdoch may be a psychopath in a suit, devoid of empathy, remorse, or interest in anything beyond growing sales and making money, but by goodness he has worked hard and triumphed by force of will without a lot of support. Even he seems rather surprised by the amount of power he wields, and he is not aware of the absurdity of it all, even as he harnesses it for his own ends.
On the other hand, it does leave a number of questions unanswered, though arguably it does give the audience the chance to make up their own minds about the man. A determination to impress his unloving mother is the motivator behind his drive, suggests Murdoch in the play, but as his methods horrify her, this justification is unconvincing. Williamson also presents him with a chip on his shoulder, a hatred for everyone more intellectual than him and a desire to drag down anyone ‘better’ than himself (in any way – class, intellect, morality). A trait more hardwired than the desire to please is hardwired in the great majority of us.
Like Vice in a medieval morality play, or even a pantomime villain, watching the amoral ever-expedient Murdoch is a real pleasure. Devinie imbues Murdoch with a good deal of charm, Avery less so, but the evening despite the singing and dancing and energy is not ultimately a feel-good one, and this is the point. Unlike your morality play or panto, this villain never gets his come-uppance, nor are there balancing forces for good. Yes, his mother and wives disapprove of his methods, his editors fight their corners a bit, but in the end, anyone who is no longer of use or interest to him, he disposes of with as small a severance pay as is possible. A worthy adversary, a hero, is required in the play, for it to be truly satisfying – unfortunately this is as much lacked and needed in real life. Director Colin McColl compares Rupert to Richard III, but for Murdoch, when the going gets tough there are no shortage of creditors willing to supply him with a horse. A modern morality tale indeed.
At Q Theatre until July 19