Sunday, May 12, 2019

'Ink' splashes journalism's muck on public stage

Bertie Carvel and Jonny Lee Miller
Saturday I saw Ink, by British playwright James Graham, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in New York.  I wanted to see Ink primarily to fan-boy Jonny Lee Miller.  I’ve idolized him since he appeared alongside Ewan McGregor in the brilliant 1996 Danny Boyle film adaptation of Ian Welsh’s Trainspotting.  I fell in love with him all over again as the reimagined Sherlock Holmes of U.S. CBS’s Elementary, the longest-ever screen-time run of an actor in the role and complement to Lucy Liu’s equally landmark portrayal of Watson.

As newspaper editor Larry Lamb, Miller live was all that I dreamed.  His jaunty spirit and dark-edge demeanor gave life to the tidal forces of moral conflict that tore Lamb apart as he labored under Australian upstart Rupert Murdoch—played by Bertie Carvel, who has owned the role to deserved acclaim since Ink’s debut at the London Almeida and then the West End—to reinvent news in the British tabloid Sun, circa 1970.

I don’t want to give away too much of the play’s awestriking climaxes, so I’ll only mention that one moment comprises a thundering explosion of physicality by Miller as Lamb, as he literally pounds his newspaper vision into reality over union workers’ refusal to roll the presses.  Miller seemed to be losing his voice by the matinee’s end, and my wife and I wondered that he could pull off this exhausting feat a second time that day, much less eight times per week.  Ink opened on Broadway in April and was just extended to July 7.

Playwright James Graham
speaks at his alma mater
University of Hull in 2018.
(By Robin S. Taylor
CC BY-SA 4.0.)
To my giddy delight, Ink delivered so much more than a stellar cast.  Mansfield-born James Graham is an accomplished writer of stage, TV, and film, and he’s evidenced an award-winning capacity to grapple with social issues through context.  (His film adaptation of Mikey Walsh’s Romany-expose memoir Gypsy Boy is in pre-production.)  Graham’s socially provocative Privacy in 2014 was informed by the Edward Snowden affair, and Daniel Radcliffe joined the cast for its New York debut in 2016.  With Privacy, though, lukewarm reviews suggested that Graham modestly missed the mark, giving audiences angst, but not much that was new.  He might have bitten off more than he could chew by trying to tackle a subject of such wide-ranging complexity.

If Privacy was Graham’s faltering early exploration of the social landscape, Ink is his finished dissertation.  I knew Ink would be about the birth of modern tabloid journalism—the less modern iteration being the Hearst-Pulitzer yellow journalism of the 1890s, another turning point in the history of news, evidencing my journalism professors’ admonition that nothing ever happens for the first time.  I did not understand before I went that Ink is calculated as a commentary on our present-day problem of “fake news,” or, otherwise packaged, the consumer-driven, 24-hour news cycle that undoubtedly represents another centennial shift in the enterprise of journalism and signifies to many a circular cause and symptom of moral decay in human civilization.

Set principally in 1969, Graham’s play never mentions “fake news” in modern terms.  But it does talk about populism, and therein lies Graham’s clever contextualization.  He locates Murdoch’s revolutionary arrival on the global media scene relative implicitly to the Fox Corporation of 2019, five decades hence, and at the same time relative explicitly to the spilling of populism onto the world stage in 1939, three decades earlier.

Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu talk Elementary at San Diego Comic-Con in
2012.  (By Genevieve CC BY 2.0.)
As the cast discussed on stage in a talk after the show on May 11, an insightful feature of Graham’s Murdoch and Lamb arises in their portrayal as protagonists.  Part of you roots for them to succeed in overturning the staid paternalism of post-World War II journalism.  Fleet Street had become entangled with elitism, arguably peddling news as nothing more meaningful than a new opiate for the masses.  Media had fallen out of touch with the everyday plight of the working classes that post-war chroniclers had purported to protect with anti-establishment bulwarks.  Sound familiar?

Lamb’s fall reminds us that the shortest path from Cronkite-esque public servant to Alex-Jones-town social menace is more slippery slope than cliff-edge drop.  Murdoch is the devil to Lamb’s Doctor Faustus, and one must remember that the devil was not really the villain of that story.  Protagonist and antagonist at once, Faustus was everyman.

Graham artfully traced the unraveling of countless threads in social policy in Ink’s Sorkin-paced script.  Almost in the play’s background, the aforementioned union press workers evolve from butt of ridicule to moral compass as Lamb loses his grip.  Characters’ commentary collateral to the business of newspapering portends the looming behemoth of television, à la Marshall McLuhan.  Lamb’s dogged insistence that absolute freedom of information is the best way to save the life of kidnapped Muriel McKay evokes pondering of Julian Assange’s access-to-information fundamentalism, such as birthed Wikileaks.

Front and center, the advent of the Murdochian media empire, portrayed in Ink, posits a simple question that has haunted ethicists since the construction of the Fourth Estate:  Is the role of journalism in a democracy to give the public what it needs or what it wants?

 Elementary s7 premieres May 23 on CBS.

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