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Photo by James Morgan

Daniel Sparrow productions presents, RUPERT, by David Williamson, at the Theatre Royal, King St, Sydney, 28 November to 21 December, 2014.

David Williamson’s RUPERT, is his 46th play (a 47th play, CRUISE CONTROL, premiered at the Ensemble Theatre this year). He has had, in fact, nine productions* of his work in Sydney, this year. A most prolific and well seen Australian playwright. Indeed.

RUPERT, the play had its origins, as a commissioned work from the Melbourne Theatre Company, under an invitation of the Artistic Director, Brett Sheedy, and premiered in late August, 2013, in Melbourne, and then travelled to Washington for the World Stages International Theatre Festival in March, 2014. It seemed the play could not find a theatre or co-producer in Sydney, and it looked as if it would not be seen here, at all. Then a London based producer Daniel Sparrow (of Australian origin) took it on, with a plan to transferring this new production to the West End and the UK.

In a two and a half hour stretch, a cast of 10 actors – playing some sixty characters, between them – present a tabloid-cabaret style review of the rise and fall (?) and life of Rupert Murdoch (there is some music and some dancing). It is, in the experience of it, a well written powerpoint resume of this life without,  however, a penetrating point-of-view, or in-depth exploration of the psychological motivation. We come to understand that it is not money that interests this Rupert, but power and influence. That he has a ruthless pursuit of objective, uncomplicated by much personal need for the human foibles of the ordinary man.

David Williamson in his program notes tells us:

Brett (Sheedy) and I decided early on that whatever personal views I held on Rupert’s world view, they shouldn’t, as far as possible, influence the way the story is told. A left-wing playwright lacerating right-wing thinking has been a staple of theatre for so long now it’s become predictable and predictability is the death of good theatre. …

The play had to be about the character of Rupert much as his family and achievements. And what better way than to give Rupert the freedom to run his own show. A kind of Rupert Cabaret, in which he invites the audience to sit down and listen to the real story of his life, not the story peddled by lefty, inner city, latte sipping acai berry eating critics. Rupert stars in and has cast his own show. …
Those arriving at the theatre hoping to find that the playwright has supplied a counter argument to every assertion that Rupert makes will be disappointed. This is Rupert’s show. …

There are two Ruperts in this play: the older played by James Cromwell, and the younger, played by Guy Edmonds, “who he admits might be a tad more charismatic and handsome than people remember him”. The interaction between the two characters is easily enjoyed through the empathetic work of the two actors, with many skills, besides speculated tongue-in-cheek vaudeville technique. It is Mr Cromwell, playing the ‘ring-master’ Rupert, who anchors this production and play, magnificently. His authority, his presence, his elegance, his bristling intelligence, dominates the production, and us, the audience, effortlessly. The last time I watched the brilliant Mr Cromwell was at the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco, where he played the older A.E. Houseman to a younger self, in the Tom Stoppard masterpiece, THE INVENTION OF LOVE. This play still not seen in Sydney, of course. What with a cast of 21 male and 1 female actor, and a complicated design demand, it is not likely to be considered by any of our major companies, no matter its theatrical brilliance Too, costly? Perhaps? Too, smart? Hmmm?

The rest of the population of this play is tackled by the other eight actors, whipping in and our of costume and wig, creating iconic walks, gestures and sounds to capture for our quick recognition the real life people that, in some cases have only flitted across our eyes in newsreels or documentary (they, sometimes, were having to shift scenery and properties, as well!): Danielle Cormack, Glenn Hazeldine, Jane Phelan, Bert LaBonte, Scott Sheridan, Haiha Lee, Jane Turner and Ben Wood. Scoring most often and hilariously is Mr Hazeldine and Mr Sheridan in some 14 incarnations each! The others have hits and misses. One wished that the Director, Lee Lewis, (or, Choreographer, Andrew Holdsworth) had spent more time with the actors in developing more that the shallow, cartoon outline of some of the impersonations, and had demanded, from these Australian actors, a more informed back-story and a cleaner, sharper vocal and physical edge to the work – it was sometimes a little ragged in detail and consistency.

TIME, of course, or the lack of it, is often the bane of the artists in preparing their work, and despite, which one it it may be in this particular – lack of it, I intuit – this production by Ms Lewis is a spectacular achievement, especially in its conception as a huge Brechtian hybrid of that playwright/director’s (Bertolt Brecht) epic and cabaret invention. Stephen Curtis, the Set, Costume and AV Designer, has realised a huge task with practical nous and clean aesthetics – I note the, almost, trademark shades of black and white in the colour palate of Ms Lewis’ vision. The Lighting, by Niklas Pajanti; and the work of Composer, Orchestrator and Sound Designer, Kelly Ryall, both re-enforce that vision.

For Mr Williamson there are, he has told us in interview, some resonances of the scale of Shakespeare’s RICHARD III in the life of Rupert – not as physically bloody, of course – and the charm of both these inventions Richard and Rupert, carries us a long way, in each of their own opus, to non-judgementally enjoy their history. And, in the final moments of RUPERT, Mr Cromwell, Ms lewis and Mr Willliamson bring a thrilling, ominous chill to this relatively, lightweight telling of the life of one of the most powerful contemporary figures of influence and power, when this Rupert having led us superficially, but with charm and self-deprecating humour, through his life, steps down-stage, centre-,stage and leers out at us, in a final direct and complicit conversation, and concludes, that whatever has transpired, whatever the recent scandal of his existence that threatened his ’empire’, that he is still here: “I AM STILL HERE. I AM STILL HERE.” The memory of Brecht’s creation, THE RISE AND FALL OF ARTURO UI, a parody of Adolf Hitler, leapt up, and out at me, and echoed the final sentiment of that work: “The bitch that bore him is in heat again.” An ominous and sad warning, both. One left the theatre a little more sober than one may have felt when enjoying the interval refreshment.

Watching , again recently, the DVD of the National Theatre’s celebration of its 50 years at work, one of the sequences had Ralph Fiennes playing a character, a South African media mogul called, Lambert Le Roux (originally, famously created by Anthony Hopkins), from David Hare and Howard Brenton’s 1985 play, PRAVDA. It is a satire of journalism and particularly the media ‘baron’ Rupert Murdoch. It is a bracing, funny and fearsome work. It steps not back from the ugly of this world. Not seen in Sydney, of course, except at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) directed, by Tony Knight, in its heyday, with Colin Moody showing his devastating promise for fearless confrontation in his work, even then. I wish, that now that we have had the relatively harmless sweetener, of Mr Williamson’s RUPERT, one of the companies in Sydney could give us the bitter, but delicious pill of PRAVDA. Any chance? Anyone game enough?

*The Williamson plays, in production this year:

1. TRAVELLING NORTH (1979), The STC production.
2. WHEN DAD MARRIED FURY, Parramatta Tour by HIT.

The Jack Manning Trilogy, produced by the Ensemble Theatre at Chatswood.

3. FACE TO FACE (2000)

6. CRUISE CONTROL (2014), Ensemble Theatre
7. THE REMOVALISTS (1971), Rock Surfers Theatre Company
8. EMERALD CITY (1987), Griffin Theatre Co.
9. RUPERT (2014) Daniel Sparrow Productions

Amazing, eh?