James Graham has a remarkable knack of taking flamboyantly worthy subjects and turning them into dazzling comic thrillers. Who would honestly have thought This House, a drama about the maintenance of the Lib-Lab coalition of the late seventies would be anything more than 'interesting'? But it turned out to be a hilarious hit and transferred to the West End. There is more obvious meat in the story of Rupert Murdoch's takeover of The Sun, but in most people's hands it would have been surely rather earnest. Ink is a sensation, really. Powered by a Rupert Goold production in Enron mode, the play is honestly just breathtakingly enjoyable. It's three hours long but it zips by.
Here's the thing I am always interested in with James Graham's plays. He has invented a role of being the playwright who writes about politics, and by that I mean his actual subject matter is politics. He wrote some fine early plays that are not obviously political (The Man, The Whisky Taster, A History of Falling Things and more), but a few that were (Coal not Dole, Eden's Empire, Tory Boyz, and more) but with This House he seems to have found his footing. His subject matter is political parties, MPs, chief whips, back room deals and ballot boxes, iconic moments of political history and forgotten cul-de-sacs of political ambition.
But writing about political subjects doesn't necessarily make a play political. While he has, by his own admissions, a geek's fascination with the minutiae of modern political history, he does not always give us a clear sense of his view of these matters. Ordinarily, I like this; I'm bored of plays where the playwright is all-too-obviously editorialising and telling us what to think. But when the topic is so manifestly political, it is sometimes a shock to have the writer step back from commentary.
Here's an example. In 2015, he wrote a play about the small-time English political terrorist group The Angry Brigade. It's a game of two halves; one act focuses on the police investigation, the other with the Angry Brigade themselves. The police half is somewhat Ortonesque in tone; as the investigation gets deeper into the counter-cultural milieu from with the Brigade emerged, a spirit of anarchic sexuality invades the police station and the act ends with the investigation and the police roles in wild abandon. The Brigade act, conversely, begins in dramaturgical and thematic anarchy, but slowly members of the group begin to rebel against the complete freedom, particularly sexual, of their principles and order begins to assert itself in the desire for stability, for love, for commitment.
What fascinates me is that Graham insists that the two acts can be performed in either order, police first or Brigade first. This makes a huge dramaturgical difference. If it's police first, the shape of the play is to begin in order, drift into disorder by the interval ands then watch as order slowly reasserts itself. If it's Brigade first, we watch disorder temporarily solidify into order before chaos breaking out once more. Put another way, putting the police act first seems to suggest that order will always triumph; the Brigade first tells us that anarchy will always assert itself. By not determining which act to put first, Graham has fascinatingly opted out from that crucial judgment. Is this apolitical or itself a political decision?
Ink is very clarifying in terms of these debates. Ever since I can remember having political views of the world, Rupert Murdoch has loomed pretty large in my own demonology. Wapping, Page Three, 'If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights', Fox News, phone hacking and more. He is as close to unredeemable as it gets. He's as close to evil as it gets. But you know what? Ink has you rooting for him. In the first half, as he barges awkwardly into Fleet Street and comes up against smug, patrician complacency, a superior disdain for this interloper who doesn't understand the British traditions of journalism, you are urging him on as he tears apart the stuffy snootiness of Hugh Cudlipp and the rest of the British press. I don't think I've ever before felt sympathy for Rupert Murdoch in my life.
This might be valuable in itself, I suppose. We should always try to understand why our enemies behave the way they do. It's not good to dismiss any human being as evil or unredeemable. But actually there's something subtler going on here and it's a sign, I reckon, of James Graham dramaturgical sophistication that is easy to miss in amongst the razzle-dazzle of the play's humour, its pace and the production's ferocious pleasures.
There are two stories overlaid on each here: one is a rags-to-riches and the other is a rise-and-fall. It's the story of The Sun itself that is a rags-to-riches. When Murdoch takes it on, it's the joke of Fleet Street: a newspaper lagging behind all of its tabloid rivals in terms of sales, respect, impact. It's clear that if Murdoch hadn't bought it, it would probably have been shut down. By the end of the play it seems to have become the best-selling daily paper in the world. It's a single upward trajectory right the way through the play.
But then there's a rise-and-fall story. This is the story of Murdoch and his editor Larry Lamb. And this figures slightly different for the two of them. For Murdoch, there's a kind of Frankenstein story: he wants The Sun to be brash, populist, successful and he urges Lamb to do whatever it takes to get there. But when Lamb actually does these things, Murdoch seems to be slightly horrified, especially when (spoiler alert) a campaign over a kidnapped woman seems to contribute to her demise and we see the dark side of introducing Page 3. He has lashed himself to a chariot that is out of control. For Larry Lamb, it's different: an old-school journalist, trade unionist, a man with vision and principles, he has abandoned some of them to make the paper Murdoch wants, but he's actually made a full conversion: he wants the paper to be brash and crass and ignorant and sensationalist. So by the end his and Murdoch's positions are reversed; he's the one mocking the interloper for timidity. His rise and fall is in our eyes; his rise is at the expense of a moral fall.
Dramaturgically what's smart is that this means that in the first half of the play the two stories are in sync (both rising); we are rooting for the new venture. In the second half they diverge - as the paper is rising, the men associated with it are falling. And this is where the commentary starts to come in as we experience the widening gap between two definitions of success, financial and moral. Interestingly, we still feel something for Murdoch as he struggles with the monster he's created.
Over all of this hangs the shadow of everything else we know about The Sun, its degrading impact on our culture, its casual pornification of the mainstream, its brash Toryism, the paparazzi culture, the phone hacking and so on. In its coercive appeal to 'ordinary people', pumped full of conservatism and prejudice, it's part of the long process of normalising right-wing views and leading to the contempt for evidence, facts and reality that - it isn't going to far to say - leads to Brexit. Even as we enjoy Murdoch's trouncing of the old guard, this gives us pause. Be careful, the play seems to be saying, what you wish for.
Ink is a much cleverer play than it might seem. Its rush, its brio, its great jokes, its big characters could mislead you into thinking it's a romp. But finally it's asking big questions about us now, how we got where we are today and how it might have seemed like a good idea at the time.