Is it possible that in 1979, sometime before the première of Travelling North, probably while he was en route from Melbourne to Sydney, the real David Williamson was kidnapped by aliens and replaced here on Earth by an android replicant? Isn't there something suspicious about that machine-like productivity, one play a year for thirty-four years? Or those conformist comedy-dramas, varied in colour and finish but all constructed after the same model of studied sociability? Or what of his coolly programmatic blending of theme and topicality? Or the precision coddling of subscriber vanities?
But if the real David Williamson has been missing these past three and a bit decades, it seems he's back now, taking the road not taken, picking up from where he left off in 1979 with a highly stylised bio-play chronicling the rise and rise of the world’s most influential and powerful media figure, Rupert Murdoch. It's an absorbing, very funny, very theatrical production, and a well-compressed digest of a very full life, with nary a note of naturalistic living-room banter.
Williamson's focus is on the ambition and the politics of the man. The private antagonisms and family scandals get their due mention ‑ the broken marriages, the children ‑ but only to better illustrate his all-absorbing commitment to business. This is the story of a young man bequeathed a single, small-circulation afternoon newspaper in sleepy Adelaide who became the most powerful voice in the English-speaking world, and used his immense power for ‑ for what? Murdoch claims he is in the newspaper business for profit, and only profit. And here we see his ruthless gift for turning that profit. But, as the profits pile up, we also see another motive: the desire for an influential voice, one that can't be ignored, one with which to push a personal politics.
The story is told ‑ all affability and charm ‑ by Sean O'Shea, who plays Rupert as our avuncular 82-year-old contemporary. He makes light of his reputation for villainy, gently goads his left-leaning detractors in the audience and, with the merest suggestion of ironic self-mockery, does a lot to encourage a sympathetic interest in his tale. Playing his younger self is Guy Edmonds, who unlike O'Shea looks nothing like Rupert. This is quite deliberate. One of the more interesting theatre-tricks at work here is to have the virile young Edmonds playing Murdoch right into his late seventies. This double image of cunning and stamina, the two on-stage Murdochs, is an accurate account of the man's inner resources.
Director Lee Lewis has worked a fascinating epic-theatre artificiality over Williamson's script. The lighting and design are simple, not overly decorative or naturalistic. Frequent use is made of a running half-curtain and projected titles to set the scene. Actors jump in and out of the many different characters on stage and the older Murdoch is constantly pulling us aside for a quiet word. Altogether it barrels along at terrific pace.
But for all the art and energy, at times Rupert feels too linear, too much like a highlights package, a mere rehearsal of all the most famous anecdotes. We hear about the string of newspaper acquisitions, his hands-on editorial style, his ruthlessness, his cosy relationship with politicians here and in the UK, and a few of the great tabloid controversies, such as Christine Keeler's memoirs and the anti-Murdoch "Dirty Digger" hysteria which followed. Then there's the New York Post, Hollywood, Twentieth Century Fox and BSkyb, the global financial crisis, and at last the phone hacking scandal and Leveson Inquiry. Despite Lewis's best efforts, it tends toward the sub-Brechtian: a well-drawn picture, verging on a moral lecture, but without the unifying heat of a higher dramatic faith. Individual events in Rupert's life are weighed carefully and presented clearly, but in a way it feels like an unfinished story. And perhaps, with Rupert still on top, ever undiminished, it must be.
There are many fine caricatures along the way. Bert LaBonté stands out for his foul-mouthed Sir Frank Packer and Simon Gleeson for his Bob Hawke/Paul Keating double. The Yanks and the Poms are sent up brilliantly, and you do inevitably, if improbably, find yourself barracking for the man after whom Dennis Potter named his pancreatic cancer.
In this carnival-like career through Rupert's life there are echoes of The Legend of King O'Malley, that seminal revue-style theatrical event from 1970, co-written by Williamson's old sparring partner Bob Ellis. In the final scenes the stage is completely cleared and O'Shea and Edmunds address the audience with mounting vehemence. It's almost as though we are finally getting a look inside Murdoch's head. But, as has always been his way, Williamson ultimately resists speculating on his character's inner life, or hazarding anything overtly allegorical. He prefers to remain on the surface of events, which is where Rupert leaves us.
Of course Williamson wasn't replaced by an android. But seeing a show like Rupert makes you wonder what might have happened if back in 1979, after conquering Australian naturalism, Williamson had dared to push himself artistically, and not relaxed into the repetitions of a successful professional. By 2013, he may have been able to push a project like this to some more impressive conclusion. Still, Rupert may well mark a new chapter for Williamson, who has by no means lost his gift for dramatic compression and pithy banter. This is an entertaining and welcome turn from one of our best-known playwrights.