THERE is a point early on in Rupert, acclaimed Australian playwright David Williamson’s view of the life and times of the media tycoon everyone loves to hate, where discussion turns to the best headlines from Murdoch’s stable of papers.
The black humour of the New York Post’s ‘Headless body in topless bar’ is nominated as is the gloriously simple ‘Freddie Starr at my hamster’ and self-congratulatory ‘It was the Sun wot won it,’ the day after Margaret Thatcher’s 1992 re-election.
His view of the British ruling classes? “The upper echelons of the establishment are fuckwits,” chortles James Cromwell who plays Murdoch the elder.
The slow up-take of satellite television? “We’re broadcasting to three guys in the Isle of Skye who enjoy Bette Davies movies.”
Cromwell, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Babe, is our dour guide to the world of Murdoch from an academically underwhelming stint at Oxford through buys outs and back stabbings, prime ministers and ex-wives to the notorious phone hacking scandal.
He shares the stage with a younger Murdoch, an easy-on-the-eye Guy Edmonds who presents the tycoon as an almost likeable giddy teenager, hungry for power at any cost but not averse to breaking out in dance when a rival his vanquished.
One of those rivals is the comically pot-bellied Frank Packer who, in a humorous highlight, is reduced to rolling himself in his office chair across the stage f-bombing with aplomb as Murdoch systematically snatches his printing presses from under him.
However, those hoping for a deep insight into Murdoch’s relationship with Margaret Thatcher might come away disappointed with Jane Turner’s Iron Lady having far less stage time than the show’s poster might suggest.
Meryl Streep has forever raised the bar on portrayals of the former British Prime Minister but with what time she has Turner gives it some welly, seducing Murdoch with a combination of conservative rhetoric, the tango and cougar-like flirtatiousness.
And if you ever wondered what Thatcher, in her most sensible suit and pearls, would look like channelling Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, this is your opportunity.
The play rattles along at a pace – squeezing 60-odd years into just a few hours.
So much so that, particularly in the second half, the action dissolves into a blur as loose ends are wrapped up and a cast of hundreds played by a company of eight, enters and exits the stage like so many indistinguishable soap stars confessing to the tabloids about their own personal “drugs hell”.
It’s too early to play the phone hacking scandal for laughs and Rupert doesn’t try to. But Murdoch’s behaviour during the rest of the play has been so rambunctiously fun it’s hard to change gears when the subject attempts to sober up the audience.
There is something of the adult pantomime about Rupert. Decades transition through music and dance, grotesque caricatures have their time in the spotlight and, as another hapless editor is about to be pushed off the precipice, you almost want to shout: “Murdoch, he’s behind you!”
The definitive history of Murdoch? Probably not. A laugh-out-loud rollick through the dirty digger’s dastardly deeds? Definitely.
David Williamson’s Rupert is now playing at the Theatre Royal Sydney until December 21. Details:http://www.ticketmaster.com.au/Rupert-tickets/artist/2025296