Review: Journalism Drama “Ink” is as Sensational as its Subject

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In a moment where our president has declared a war on the free press, it comes as no surprise that Broadway has responded with a slew of plays exploring the powers (both good and bad) of journalism, from “Lifespan of a Fact” to “Network.” It seems poignantly fitting, as well, then to enter and see the set for “Ink,” Manhattan Theatre Club’s West End transfer currently playing at the Friedman Theatre; Bunny Christie’s elaborate set consists of towers and labyrinths of news desks, landline phones, type writers, and stacks of newspapers — all dripping with blood, I mean ink.

The ringing of rotary phones and clicking of typewriters clearly signals for us an older time in journalism, in this case 1969, back when newspapers were respectful. The play explores the real story of the re-birth of a London daily newspaper, The Sun, and its radical reimagining of journalism. Over the span of the play the editorial team adds horoscopes, a women’s section, sports articles, free giveaways, gossip columns (including about the royal family), and TV criticism — all of which had never been included in newspapers before.

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At the helm is a rich Australian who wants to shake things up, Rupert Murdoch (played by the always excellent Bertie Carvel), and the passionate editor he hires to run the paper, Larry Lamb (Johnny Lee Miller in a role he tackles with adept skill). James Graham’s play expertly tells how this ruthless pair push all morals aside in pursuit of press popularity, as they say throughout, distribution sales are all the matter. Rupert Goold as director has a perfect handle on the material, making it speak to American audiences and our press culture of today without feeling forced.

The first act of the play takes some time to build up (unlike most American plays on Broadway right now, this is a two-act, two and a half hour more traditional piece) and sometimes come off as an adult version of “Newsies:” Lamb quickly builds a team and together they manage to get out the first edition of The Sun just in time. This act is good and well acted, but it is in the second act that “Ink” becomes a prize-worthy drama. Once established, Lamb decides he will do whatever takes, including invasive reporting on a kidnapping case of a colleague's wife and later, a nude photoshoot. Ethics are thrown out the window, but sales skyrocket, and in the end, Lamb is forced to wonder, as we all are, if it was all worth it.

Standouts from the supporting cast include Andrew Durand, as a hilarious young photographer, Tara Summers as the confident women’s editor, Robert Stanton as the deputy obsessed with layout, and Rana Roy as a English-Indian model who is encouraged to change her hair and her last name and pressured into posing nude.

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The stakes of the piece get dangerously high, paralleling the precariously stacked furniture of Christie’s set. At the very top of it all are five W’s that light up, each representing one of the major questions of journalism — who, what, where, when, and why — the last of which Lamb begins the play by telling us is “not important because if you know the why then the story’s over,” but ends the play conflicted when Murdoch tells him that he has “killed the Why.”

Perhaps these omnipresent W’s may signal investigative inquiry in 1969, but in 2019 it is hard to not see them and think of the ubiquitous “www.” Throughout “Ink” the internet, twitter, sensational and invasive journalism, ethical violations, and fake news accusations loom as silent specters. But is the unspokenness of the relevance that makes this play so haunting and Goold’s direction so superb.

“Ink” may be this season’s third journalism drama, but it is the quite clearly the best of the trio, forcing us to think about our relationship with the media without telling us exactly how to feel. In a year where so much ink (and bandwidth) has been spent debating the role of the media, this play is perhaps the best exploration of the theme; it’s a cautionary tale that never becomes a moralistic fable. There is, however, quite a bit we can hopefully learn.

Written by

Theater Critic and Queer Blogger. Vassar College alum, currently working toward a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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