Rupert Murdoch the subject of new plays in Melbourne and London

Melbourne show covers life and controversies of man who owned News of the World; London drama centres on the phone-hacking scandal

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 September, 2013, 4:44am

It has been an eventful couple of years for Rupert Murdoch. In Britain, evidence that reporters at several of his newspapers routinely hacked into private cellphones as they pursued hot stories led to the demise of the News of the World, one of his mightiest tabloids, and incited an official government inquiry into the British press.

In June, Murdoch announced that he was divorcing his third wife, Wendi Deng, whom he married in 1999. And now, with Australia in the midst of a federal election campaign, Murdoch, a harsh critic of the incumbent Labor Party and the owner of 70 per cent of the country's newspapers, is once again the topic of the day in his native land.

The dramatists have taken note. Richard Bean, the author of One Man, Two Guvnors, a global comedy hit, is writing a play on the phone-hacking scandal for the National Theatre in London at the invitation of its artistic director, Nicholas Hytner. In Australia, the Melbourne Theatre Company has just staged the premiere of Rupert, a cabaret-style dramatisation of Murdoch's life by one of Australia's best-known playwrights, David Williamson.

The play, which opened on Thursday at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, uses two actors to play Murdoch. Guy Edmonds is the young Rupert. Sean O'Shea, appearing as Murdoch's 82-year-old self, also offers commentary and direction as the action unfolds - very quickly to accommodate a career spanning more than six decades.

Williamson, whose fiddling with the text and constant updating took him through 50 revisions, starts with Murdoch as the young heir to a failing Australian newspaper and follows him as he parlays success in Australia to tabloid triumphs in Britain, the purchase of The Times of London, and inroads into the United States.

Little is left out, not even the shaving-cream pie that a comedian heaved at Murdoch when he appeared to testify before a parliamentary committee looking into the hacking scandal.

The six other members of the ensemble cast take on multiple roles to populate an often crowded canvas.

The reviews have been good, although critics hoping to see Murdoch's head served on a platter came away disappointed.

Williamson is probably better known to American audiences as a screenwriter. He wrote the film version of his play Don's Party, directed by Bruce Beresford, and the screenplays for Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously, both directed by Peter Weir.

In Australia, where he first rose to prominence in the early 1970s, Williamson is best known for such satirical plays as The Removalists, The Perfectionist and Brilliant Lies, which he has turned out at the rate of nearly one a year.

Brett Sheehy, the artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, approached Williamson a year and a half ago to write a play.

"I told him I'd love him to consider something which was a bit different from his usual work - something which was thematically very global," Sheehy said. "I asked him where was the heat and passion in discussions with his friends, at dinner parties, barbecues, get-togethers? He said: 'Oh God, that's easy. The power relationship between the media and politics. The News of the World troubles. The Leveson inquiry.'"

Sheehy suggested that he take that as his subject and splash it on a big canvas.

"Rupert immediately sprang to mind as a subject," Williamson said. "He is the most powerful Australian or ex- Australian ever to have lived."

A dramatic precursor immediately presented itself: Richard III.

"Both men, through a combination of boldness, ruthlessness, charm and steely ambition rose to rule their realms," Williamson said. "Richard gets his comeuppance on Bosworth Field, but what's remarkable about Rupert is that he never does. The other difference, I guess, is that Richard killed many to get to the top. Rupert just fires anyone who doesn't toe the ideological line."

Murdoch was invited to Rupert, but has not responded. A theatre spokeswoman said members of his extended family were expected.