'Rupert': Theater Review

James Cromwell Rupert - H 2014
James Morgan

James Cromwell Rupert - H 2014

A skim across the surface of the mogul’s life

James Cromwell stars as media titan Rupert Murdoch in David Williamson's cabaret-style bio-play, which follows its Sydney run with a transfer to London's West End next year

Men of large appetites are the stuff of which dramatists' dreams are made, and few are as voracious as Rupert Murdoch. Australian playwright David Williamson attempts to cover the sweep of the media baron's life in a bildungsroman with a main character whose essential nature doesn’t change much. Williamson is best known for works of less panoramic scope. His domestic suburban comedies puncturing middle-class pretensions make him a kind of gentler Edward Albee with an amped-up gag quotient. But Rupert is a much grander proposition, and Lee Lewis’ production whips through the subject's life at warp speed.

Rupert has been conceived as a cabaret, with the occasional brief dance number. The show’s bare-bones set, designed by Stephen Curtis, might be a nod to the form — and maybe even to the pool-hall impresario qualities of the man himself. But it makes the stage feel oddly barren in Sydney's 1,200-seat Theatre Royal. And the issue isn’t helped by the playwright’s bifurcation of his central character.

James Cromwell (beloved on these shores for his role as the farmer in Babe, and more recently an Emmy winner for American Horror Story) is the star attraction. But he plays Murdoch only nominally. As befits a man who likes to control a narrative, Cromwell’s Murdoch choreographs the retelling of his own life. He wields a remote to bring up the house lights at will, and to freeze the cast of characters inhabiting his life onstage. However, he never steps inside the story.

That’s left to Guy Edmonds, who is credited as Young Rupert, but plays the title figure from his early days at Oxford right up until the Leveson Inquiry. Anybody expecting Cromwell to sub in at the halfway mark, when Murdoch is entering middle age, will be disappointed. It’s a puzzling decision to leave him on the sidelines, lobbing in commentary rather than in the thick of it. Edmonds has brio but feels too guileless to play Rupert young or old. Standing next to Cromwell — the imposing one-time Dudley Smith from L.A. Confidential — doesn’t help.

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Murdoch is introduced frittering away his time at Oxford, an education in which he is plainly uninterested. From there we’re treated to his greatest hits. Murdoch returns from England and claims his inheritance, a single newspaper in Adelaide. He quickly expands to Sydney, launches the country’s first national newspaper, then jumps to the U.K. and its tabloids, where he soars high by aiming low.

He’s aided by the connivance of Margaret Thatcher (a wonderfully saucy Jane Turner, best known for the cult TV comedy series Kath & Kim), a prime minister whose loathing for the unions is equal to Murdoch's. Finally, he expands to New York, where the press baron chafing at the classism of the English establishment finds his spiritual home, and where his march into film and TV begins.

Covering so much gives the playwright the chance to wheel out some famous Murdoch anecdotes. As the proprietor of The New York Post, Murdoch owned a paper whose down-market quality meant its sales far outstripped its ad revenue. Williamson recycles the apocryphal story about Murdoch trying to get Bloomingdales to up its advertising spread and being told: "But Rupert, your readers are our shoplifters."

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If all this sounds like a capsule Wiki biography, it feels like it too, though the multitasking cast do their best to make their characters more than cursory. Turner as Murdoch’s mother as well as Thatcher is superb, but you long for more of her. Likewise Bert LaBonté, who steals the show as Ronald Reagan, as well as twelve other characters that cameo and then disappear. HaiHa Le’s Wendi Deng (she also doubles briefly as Rebekah Brooks) comes across as the most blatantly self-interested figure on the stage, which is saying something.

In the end Rupert covers so much ground that it feels thinly spread. There’s an awkwardness to the conception, not least in the way the actors are ranged on stage. Cromwell never leaves it, and the curatorial nature of his character sits oddly with his other half bounding around, in large part because they seem utterly different people. Cromwell’s Murdoch is neutered by being merely an observer, without anything to do.

There’s also nothing new here about the man himself. By choosing to focus on what we already know — the deals that are the grist of countless existing biographies — instead of Murdoch’s private or interior life, Williamson has certainly displayed good manners. But he’s done so at the expense of dramatic momentum and, ultimately, of insight.

Cast: James Cromwell, Jane Turner, Danielle Cormack, Guy Edmonds, Bert LaBonté, HaiHa Lee, Glenn Hazeldine, Jane Phegan, Scott Sheridan, Ben Wood

Playwright: David Williamson

Director: Lee Lewis

Set and costume designer: Stephen Curtis

Lighting designer: Niklas Pajanti

Music and sound designer: Kelly Ryall

Presented by Daniel Sparrow Productions