Empires of the sons
“You can’t do naturalism on the Belvoir stage,” says John Gaden. He has an intimate knowledge of Australian stages, after more than 50 years treading them. “You can only half do it. Put a kitchen in this space and it’s only ever half a kitchen.”
I’ve seen this emerge in rehearsals for Packer & Sons, my upcoming play for Belvoir. Theatricality is not necessarily achieved via a set that flies in and out or revolves. Theatricality can grip when a solitary figure stands in the vastness, so long as the moment carries the story.
Our assistant stage manager, Jennifer Parsonage, has a special talent for conjuring props as they are needed. She produces a chair as a stand-in piece for designer Romanie Harper’s cleverly sparse stage design. The stylish chair contrasts with the 1970s perch we’ve seen Kerry Packer occupy and the upholstered seat his father, Sir Frank, occupied before him. It’s just a chair in the void but now we have a rival’s throne.
“This is a space for metaphor,” says Gaden, indicating the Belvoir stage with its imperfect corner in an old tomato sauce factory. “Almost everyone in Australia has some sort of love-hate relationship with Packers and Murdochs,” says Gaden. “It is going to see your own mythology performed in front of you.”
Gaden is rehearsing the role of that rival king Rupert Murdoch. He says his instinct for the part is this: “It’s about his shyness.”
Shy? This is the same Murdoch who struck a deal with Disney to sell the Fox movie studio plus a selection of cable channels for $US71.3 billion, who colluded with Margaret Thatcher to buy The Times of London and in the US started Fox News after a failed bid to purchase CNN.
Throughout his career Murdoch’s greatest provocation has been to be denied. Casting himself as the renegade, he has perpetually sought bigger prizes, bigger refusals from the establishment of which, truthfully, he was a born member. Rupert knocks on doors, they slam in his face; he ends up owning the house – the street. What is shy about that? But Gaden is adamant: “He does play the shy guy but there’s no question about who’s in charge.”
I’m reminded now of the key quality of Gaden’s performance in the titular role of Molière’s The Miser: generosity. That twinkle in Gaden’s eye comes from a genuine kindness offstage, but in the right role it’s a cipher for beguilement. Gaden embodies Murdoch, the aggressor, the emperor, through his meekness. Acting is a game of opposites.
It would be impossible to stage Packer & Sons, a play about three generations of Packer power, without the Murdochs. The two competing families have brawled, collaborated and defined themselves against each other. The Murdochs are the Greeks to the Packers’ Roman gods.
Sir Frank is reputed to have told Kerry: “Rupert Murdoch… He’s the son I never had.” Tellingly, when young Kerry sought to prove his mettle to Frank, and subsequently James to father Kerry, it was Rupert Murdoch who provided the jousting.
My fascination with Murdoch is not new. Researching my phone-hacking drama, Mark Colvin’s Kidney, I met lawyer Mark Lewis, who represented the parents of Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl whose phone messages were intercepted by News of the World reporters.
Lewis described Rupert’s contrition as the lawyer sent the tycoon from the room so the family could deliberate. Few other than Dame Elisabeth have been in a position to put Rupert in his place.
The world saw a similar presentation of contrition at Murdoch’s 2011 appearance before British MPs. The old man interrupted his son James’s slick and articulate mea culpa with “… just one sentence. This is the most humble day of my life.”
“It is all about power,” says Gaden. “He emanates power.” And there is power, too, in not being the loudest voice in the room. The courteous listener gleans what he needs. That is an operator who knows how to take from others. The giant knows how to make himself small.
A former executive close to the Murdochs described Rupert to me as untouched by criticism. Few things ruffle him. He seldom raises his voice. He’s sly. He famously appears unannounced at his offices across the globe. Unsuspecting employees find him looking over their shoulders.
But his greatest skill is to be somehow present when absent. It is how he is able to exercise control over Australian politics while based in London since the late 1960s and as an American citizen since the 1980s. It is why he can claim, as he did before an inquiry into the ethics of the British news media, “I’ve never asked a prime minister for anything.”
Murdoch does not need to exercise editorial control; his editors know the line. “Rupert has an uncanny knack of being there even when he is not,” writes Andrew Neil in Full Disclosure, his account of editing The Sunday Times. “When I did not hear from him and I knew his attention was elsewhere, he was still uppermost in my mind.”
To play Murdoch, Gaden partners with the young actor Nick Bartlett, who inhabits both the ambitious young Rupert and his prodigal son, Lachlan. Bartlett is hungry for the experience of rehearsals, much as I’d say a young John Gaden was in the mid-1960s – exactly like John Gaden is in 2019.
Gaden certainly has one thing in common with his character: he is eternal. He has embodied seniority on the Australian stage for decades, yet he is as nimble and energetic as his youngest collaborator. Together these two actors will achieve a unified dramatic arc but, as Bartlett has discovered, Murdoch shapeshifts. “In the footage I have found of Rupert in that time compared to now, it’s two different people,” he says. The story of Murdoch’s global achievements is told in his transatlantic Australian accent and how he holds himself. “I see him as his own president of his own country now,” says Bartlett.
Bartlett, a QUT graduate making his main-stage debut, summons young Rupert’s wiliness. He relishes the condescension over young Kerry in a scene set at a 1972 boxing match, where Rupert was Kerry’s guest. For Bartlett, there is the added challenge of doubling as Lachlan.
“It feels like he talks through his jaw,” he says. “That’s been the best signifier for me.”
Bartlett prompts me to realise that Packer & Sons is the first play I’ve written where I don’t love my characters. “I judged Murdoch severely before this,” he says. “You have to empathise with someone to play them. I don’t agree with how he chooses to use his power but, far out, he’s built an empire. I respect anyone with a bit of nous – hustle.”
I agree that we’ve created these characters with respect and understanding of their drive. There’s a complex sympathy for James Packer’s quest for happiness and the love of his father. We don’t avoid their ethical impact on the world but as our director, Eamon Flack, makes clear in rehearsals: “You’re not reducing them to a simple affirmation of your own a priori moral clarity. You can’t make it too easy for yourself and your own desire to be morally superior.”
For John Gaden, there’s something freeing about playing a mercurial character. “Admiration is not all that helpful,” he says. “It can be an inhibitor. You’re constantly saying ‘I’m not as good’. If it’s a character you don’t admire but are intrigued by, it’s a much quicker way into their psyche. If you judge them for the audience, they sit back and think, ‘Job done.’”
Is the game of playwriting about opposites? Packer & Sons has required of me to find a metaphor for self in these characters, which is why it hinges on the human angle of fathers and sons. The writing is fuelled by my personal, queer view of the extremes of Australian masculinity.
For years, Kerry Packer had been regarded as the idiot son overshadowed by his ambitious and intellectual older brother, Clyde. That night at the boxing with Murdoch was Kerry’s moment to shine, and he knew it. Young Indigenous fighter Tony Mundine defeated a veteran American, Denny Moyer. And a deal was struck to sell Kerry’s father’s newspaper The Telegraph to Murdoch.
It was a masterstroke that enabled Kerry to refocus the family enterprise towards the populist television he would master. Two years later, Sir Frank was dead and Kerry was soon to be Australia’s richest person. Murdoch did fine out of the deal, too. The masthead he gained was the forebear to today’s Daily Telegraph, Sydney’s highest-selling newspaper. It is a narrative that echoed later when James partnered with the ascendant Lachlan to pitch a visionary telco to Rupert. The upset in this second version of the story is that Kerry not only refused the new ideas of his son’s era, he refused to die.
At its heart, Packer & Sons is also a story about greed. I want my audience to locate themselves in that with me. James Packer said it best himself: “I recognise that the vast majority of people would swap places with me and I wouldn’t swap places with – with anyone.” He’s right.
The whole project is about complicating an assumed understanding of these famous figures. I put it to Gaden that we will confound our audience’s expectation of these people. He corrects me: “We’re going to trade in it. Even if you’re not coming out in an exact physical representation of the real person, the audience invest it.”
Flack has stuck to this approach from the casting right through rehearsals. They are archetypes. Small mannerisms, such as Bartlett’s observation of how Rupert thinks with his tongue on his lip, provide clues. Gaden clasps his hands in a way The Simpsons’ animators also noted for the inner Murdoch of Mr Burns. We are not creating a satire. This is not about impersonation and certainly not about mockery. It is more about the essence of these characters.
The audience is complicit in the picture-making on the imperfectly shaped corner stage of Belvoir theatre. We will challenge that picture as it forms.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 16, 2019 as "Empires of the sons". Subscribe here.