Truth in the eye of the beholder

REVIEW by Ian Moore

As a playwright David Williamson excels in weaving fictional tales into a broad tapestry for stunning effect. Having invested a lifetime delving into fact, mainly for News Corp Australia, this is where I part ways with Mr Williamson in his stage production of Rupert. He has stuck to what he knows – fictional stereotypes.RupertCoverfull2

The portents were obvious on billboards outside Sydney’s Theatre Royal: “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, they proclaimed in mocking, red-top style. It may have not been the author’s intention, but it certainly summed up the production.

In terms of scope, it is difficult to find a more compelling story than the life of Keith Rupert Murdoch; his achievements – and, ahem, occasional errors – in both business and his personal relationships represent drama writ large.  It is an epic life journey played out on the global stage, the scale of which seems lost in this production. But, as a former editor of three of Rupert’s Australian papers at various stages of his corporate expansion, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Williamson’s play is narrated by the Rupert of today, played by James Cromwell, who passes judgement on, or gives perspective to, a series of grotesque parodies better suited to a university review. Instead of playing Rupert, Cromwell – in true Shakespearean style – plays to the audience which has come armed, on the night I saw the play, with its own prejudices.

It is billed as a comedy but if it was satire it failed, as the audience laughed at the wrong bits. After the cast portrayed the publisher and his business dealings as a demented Wile E. Coyote in pursuit of a doe-eyed Road Runner, Rupert, the narrator, would attempt to give some personal real-life perspective. It was then the audience would break into hysterics.  Beep-Beep – but, hey, that’s showbiz.

It was telling.  The distorted stereotype of a demon proprietor was preferred by the audience to any balance Williamson attempted to inject. They had paid to see Rupert pilloried; to admonish the stereotype that they loved to hate and the wanted their money’s worth.  This was typified by a woman behind me who, at the end of the play, lamented, “but they didn’t even mention Super League”.  The ignominy of a pie left unthrown.

It is a disarming experience to see people who played pivotal roles in your career, or with whom you have shared supreme moments of alcoholic wisdom, portrayed as cartoon characters – but it was the inaccuracies that stood out – particularly in a production that attempted to portray Murdoch as someone who had scant regard for the facts.

Without wishing to turn this review into a history lesson, let me put in on record that the portrayal of a Murdoch frustrated with his mother was wrong; The News in Adelaide was not a salacious precursor of the London Sun (it was, after all, Adelaide); instead of a joke sheet, Sydney’s Daily Mirror in its heyday was a paper of high journalistic standards and nurtured some of our finest journalists; and having to renounce his Australian citizenship to expand his business in the US caused Rupert more personal anguish than most would imagine.

There are some other surprises for those that might have placed credibility in Williamson’s script. The Packers were not dolts, nor was “Rags” Henderson, who Rupert greatly admired. Instead of a climate change denier, as depicted, Murdoch issued an edict to transform News Corporation into a carbon neutral entity to “give the planet a chance” (as well as achieve some significant savings from reduced power costs).

Like Clive Palmer, Williamson also fell for the fallacy that Rupert’s editors throughout world were told what to do and what to publish – sycophants who would tune in only to their master’s  voice. Anyone who believes that doesn’t know newspapers or the dynamics that drive their editors.  Some may argue, with some accuracy, that editors are appointed because of an approved world view, but among those ranks have been several socialists and a sergeant-of-arms of an Australian chapter of the Hells Angels.

Really all Rupert has ever wanted is an editor who will challenge orthodoxy, drive sales – and is passionate about producing a good newspaper. With papers I edited, Rupert took an interest in where I was taking the title, but he never told me what to publish or what political party to back. Those are decisions he believes are best left for the editor to decide on behalf of his or her readers. And long may it be so.

Rupert is not one of Williamson’s best, but I would say that wouldn’t I?

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