RUPERT THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF HIS THEATRICAL CAREER
‘ WE’RE hoping to turn it into a night of entertainment [that] raises questions in the audience’s mind but doesn’t answer them,’’ says David Williamson. ‘‘ There’s no strident left-wing playwright trying to dictate to them how they must think about Rupert and I’ve tried to give him all the freedom he needs to be the centre of his own cabaret.’’
He’s talking about Rupert, his new play about media proprietor Rupert Murdoch, which already has people on both sides of politics shaking their heads in bemusement.
Williamson is the most popular Australian dramatist of his generation and probably its most successful, both critically and overseas. But in writing Rupert, due to open at the Melbourne Theatre Company next month under the direction of Lee Lewis, the playwright, who has written 45 plays including The Removalists, Don’s Party and Emerald City, may have taken on the biggest challenge of his theatrical career.
Difficult to pin on the political spectrum, Williamson for years has enjoyed a fractious relationship with the Left, and lived for many years in Sydney as an exile from a hostile Melbourne before moving to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. He also has an uncanny gift for controversy, is argumentative, contentious, spiky, scrappy and combative in defence of his ideas, and was in his day the funniest of public intellectuals, equally likely to satirise those of the Left and the Right, to the irritation of each.
When we talk, the playwright is sounding a little weary after a long flight from Europe. And he is still saddened by the recent deaths of two pivotal figures in the world of Australian drama — Betty Burstall, who founded the La Mama theatre in inner-Melbourne’s Carlton where his plays were first staged, and John Sumner, who started the MTC. It’s where Williamson had some of his greatest successes and their passing has made him very conscious of his own mortality and that of his subject too, whose complex story covers 82 years.
‘‘ I can still, only just, remember when I was called a promising young playwright,’’ Williamson says slowly. And he pauses, then bursts out laughing. Then, with a groan, he recalls his first play, The Indecent Exposure of Anthony East, performed at the University of Melbourne. ‘‘ Oh, it was way back in 1968 I think,’’ he says slowly. ‘‘ Jack Hibberd’s White with Wire Wheels was also being performed on the campus somewhere and something else of Hibberd’s too, called Brain-Rot.’’
He laughs again, then asks quickly, ‘‘ Is Jack still plugging along?’’ He remembers, not altogether happily, directing Hibberd’s wedding play Dimboola at the Pram Factory, just around the corner from Burstall’s La Mama, with the raucous, argumentative radical Carlton actors. ‘‘ They were great days,’’ he says laconically. ‘‘ No, they weren’t really.’’
We were both around then and, sometimes brutally, experienced the continuing high-wire act that characterised the life of anyone connected to the Pram scene in that turbulent time: between actors and writers and, especially, between men and women, and those who wanted the place to stay a little shell and those who saw heroic possibilities for expansion. The resulting tensions gave the roughhewn theatre — and its gaudy, physically robust shows — its energy and there was never a static phase.
At times, there was a totalitarian colour- ation to much of the Pram; what seemed daring and original became tiresome and familiar; stereotyped political assertions, encouraged by their easy acceptance, replaced instinctive individual dissent; and the complex moral and metaphysical issues of art were sometimes obliterated by a singleminded nihilism.
Williamson was increasingly visible in this milieu, but often uneasily so, after the success of The Removalists at La Mama in 1971.
From the beginnings of his long career, the super-sized dramatist has been a magnet for hostility and critical disdain. Don’s Party, for example, was accepted for production at the Pram Factory by the resident Australian Performing Group in late 1971, but only with some hostility. The play wasn’t experimental enough, according to its critics; didn’t push back the frontiers of drama and life; its political consciousness needed raising. But Don’s Party’s accessibility for audiences, caustic comedy and sharp dialogue made it a hit and its success helped define the destiny of the company. Williamson was soon expelled for not attending the required number of collective meetings — and so was I.
Williamson, certainly to my surprise, suggests Rupert will be a piece of ‘‘ rough’’ theatre, a return to the kind of work he was involved with in those Carlton days. And he’s obviously delighted to have found a dramaturgical solution to the problems of translating a towering personality and biography for the stage.
It’s only days away from rehearsals, the play fully cast, and Williamson is happy with Lewis, the Griffin’s artistic director, occupying the director’s chair. ‘‘ She’s terrific with stage choreography and this play’s going to need
quite a lot of that,’’ he says. ‘‘ Oh, and we’ve got two Ruperts now; there’s an old Rupert, played by Sean O’Shea, and a young Rupert, Guy Edmonds, with a smallish cast who play thousands of roles.’’
The play, already promising a sellout season for the MTC a month before its opening, tackles recent events, including Murdoch’s split from third wife Wendi Deng and continuing concerns from the 2011 phone-hacking scandal. But of course Rupert also touches on other key points in Murdoch’s life, including his time spent at Oxford University, moving into newspapers in the 1960s, the bitter Wapping printers’ dispute, and the period in 1990 in which he almost lost his empire.
According to Williamson, his new work opens in the past when, following his father Sir Keith’s sudden death in 1952, Rupert returned to Australia to take over the running of the family business. Although he had expected to inherit a considerable fortune he was left with a relatively modest inheritance — after death duties and taxes, the main legacy was ownership of Adelaide’s The News.
‘‘ From that, as with Shakespeare’s Richard III, with a combination of absolute boldness, guile, cunning and ruthlessness he becomes the most powerful media voice I think the world has ever seen,’’ Williamson says.
He believes that to tell what he calls ‘‘ the Rupert story’’ the dramaturgy requires an epic style of presentation. ‘‘ His business life spans over 60 years, so it was a daunting task to tackle, but I love the form of the story.’’ One of his favourite plays has always been Richard III, the story of the man who would be king and who would stop at nothing to achieve his ambitions. ‘‘ I love the little hunchback there who nobody takes any notice of, just an offstage character who by sheer cunning and intelligence gets rid of all his competitors and ascends to the throne. Rupert’s struck me as a similar story in structure.’’
Here Williamson begins to laugh quietly once more. ‘‘ What’s interesting about this [play] is that I’ve had to go back to the old Pram Factory days,’’ he says, a little overcome it seems, with the irony. ‘‘ All the stuff I learned then, I seem to have to use again; I used to like that style and it’s all needed again. If anyone says my Pram Factory training was wasted, they’ll have to think again.’’ And he guffaws down the telephone line.
Williamson is also more than a little chuffed to be invited back by MTC director Brett Sheehy into the arms of one of the heavily subsided theatre companies where he once ruled the box office. ‘‘ He said to me, ‘ I want your talent, David, but I don’t want just a Williamson comedy; I want to use your ability and skill but I want something big canvas.’ And I thought what bigger canvas is there than the old Rupert.’’ Whether Sheehy’s agreement that Williamson should apply his writing talent to the story of the formidable Rupert Murdoch is an inspired decision remains to be seen.
Williamson loved TV’s The West Wing, and it always has bemused him that Australian writers shy away from writing about the highest echelons of politics, Keating! The Musical being a rare exception. ‘‘ And I thought no one influences the world more than Rupert Murdoch; anyone who thinks he’s just there to make money hasn’t studied him very closely.’’
The Rupert he has created is revue in style, and it’s easy to forget (well, almost 40 years later who would remember?) Williamson also participated in revues in those heady days in Melbourne, when a free-form, popular theatre with roots in vaudeville was all the go, most notably in the political sketch show Sonia’s Knee & Thigh Show, which I directed with Max Gillies in the early 70s at the Pram. The Bulletin’s theatre critic Leonard Glickfield wrote: ‘‘ The key people who make a night out of Sonia are David Williamson and the verbal brilliance of his scripts, and Max Gillies with his tremendous range as an actor.’’
‘‘ I was delighted at the time to write sketches and songs,’’ Williamson says after a pause as we both think about that time of postage stamp-sized stages and beer-money budgets. ‘‘ People think I’m a playwright who somehow just emerged, with none of that rough theatre background. They think I just write my pieces and the actors do them. But even in my ordinary pieces I always listen to the actors and directors before and during rehearsals. I was trained very early to not be a precious playwright who won’t listen to anyone else.’’
It was a time, he will still recall ruefully, when he was referred to by his enemies as ‘‘ a buffoon from engineering who can throw a few jokes together’’. (When he began writing
THE RUPERT STORY’ REQUIRES AN EPIC PRESENTATION
plays, he was lecturing in thermodynamics at Melbourne’s Swinburne Technical College.) Confounding his critics, he won stupendous success; it was a rule of Australian theatre for more than 30 years that ‘‘ no one loses money on a Williamson’’, especially in Sydney, where he moved in 1979.
He’s the only one left of his generation of writers for whom the theatre still has any time. A few years ago he threatened to retire but it was almost impossible to imagine. He simply refuses to go away, something for which his loyal audience is grateful, though critics still scorn his work, despite the fact he has outlasted two generations of them. Content aside, his style still rankles them, even as his politics continues to infuriate the shock jocks and conservative commentators and bloggers.
But Williamson is a popular entertainer, closer to his public, who share his ethical concerns and enjoy his humour.
With Rupert he has chosen to go down the epic road because a story as full and resonant as this simply can’t be told adequately as a documentary. ‘‘ They do it better on screen that way, maybe, but not in the theatre,’’ he says. ‘‘ There was a lot of searching for the right form.’’ He cites as additional inspirations Barry Humphries’s satirical shows (he even chased the comedian at one point about playing the lead role in Rupert) and also the works of Roman playwright Plautus. ‘‘[ Plautus] perfected the idea of speaking directly to the audience. I’ve always associated theatricality with that kind of direct address, actors speaking straight out into the theatre. And many of my plays have done that.’’
He credits Sheehy with supporting his attempts to find the right dramaturgical vehicle for such a sprawling biography and an approach that avoids the predictable. In the end, they decided to let Rupert tell his own story in what Williamson calls ‘‘ the Rupert cabaret’’, with the playwright’s own politics on hold.
‘‘ I try and keep [the] authorial voice out of it and just let Rupert explain why he’s been such a benefit to the world. In the play he’s given free rein as we go through his life, the cast of six, apart from the two Ruperts, playing the many characters in his life, like Maggie Thatcher and the other significant females, using rapid transformations.’’
The form, Williamson says, is classic cabaret, with Rupert given the chance to show the audience what a pathetic lot all the left-wing progressive academic critics of his life have been. ‘‘ He’s just given full canvas to put everyone straight and show that he’s probably been the greatest force for good in the history of the world. And who am I to say he hasn’t been? The onus then is on the audience. If they disagree with his version of the facts, they have to come up with their own because the playwright won’t be telling them.’’ The audience should not expect ‘‘ nice little counter-arguments’’.
After all, he suggests, Richard III uses his own voice throughout Shakespeare’s play. ‘‘ He talks directly to the audience and what he’s really saying is, ‘ Look at what a clever fellow I am.’ And the audience’s moral compass flips over.’’ He says it will all be up to the audience to make a judgment on the life of the man.
I mention research and he groans again. ‘‘ Oh Jesus, don’t talk to me about it. I read nothing but Rupert Murdoch for 18 months; it’s a massively bigger project than anything else I’ve done. There’s so much written about him, almost 30 biographies and a massive amount of good journalism. People asked if I was interviewing his associates and I said no, do you think they are going to talk about the real Rupert?’’
He groans again discussing the ongoing, constantly evolving nature of the life he is attempting to fix in time. ‘‘ I’d no sooner done the rewrite to cope with the marriage break-up than Rupert is caught on tape possibly contradicting what he told the Leveson inquiry,’’ he says with a wince.
As a playwright he’s fascinated by the way quality TV has turned on its head the idea that audiences want to watch only good, likable people with whom they can identify. Breaking Bad is his favourite piece of TV drama. ‘‘ It’s about a guy travelling from meek and mild to absolutely evil, though I’m not suggesting that Rupert is in any way evil. What I’m trying to do is set up a way for him to tell us his remarkable life story with a bit of singing and dancing, and put paid to all these pathetic latte-sipping, inner-city elite critics.’’
The season is close to being booked out but other companies are waiting to see just what happens when it opens. This week, meanwhile, the MTC announced Rupert would tour to Washington, DC, next year.
‘‘ It could fall flat on its face but I’m excited,’’ the playwright says. ‘‘ At the age of 70 if you’re not allowed to do something different you might as well give up.’’ Rupert Murdoch would probably agree.
Clockwise from top, David Williamson; Rupert Murdoch in 1971; Murdoch with his father, Sir Keith, in 1936; looking at his British tabloid in 1969; as a young man with his mother, Dame Elisabeth
Williamson as a young playwright; below, Guy Edmonds (left) and Sean O’Shea are the young and old Murdochs
Rupert Murdoch is proprietor of The Australian.