A man is hungry for power and needs to prove his independent worth, a trait transmitted from father to son. The rules are brutal: ignore the psychological wounds and repeat the hardline expectations on the next generation. For the cycle to be broken a man himself will have to break.
The two acts of Tommy Murphy’s new play about a famous Australian media dynasty, Packer & Sons, present a brilliant examination of mirror images; a Rorschach test of scenarios replayed across half a century, consisting of media deals anxiously forged to stay ahead of technology, political bias and influence, and merciless lessons in raising young barons.
The first half of Murphy’s play sees John Howard devastatingly effective as a ragingly tyrannical Frank Packer, the mid-20th-century proprietor of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph who is also amusingly paranoid about communists. Frank reserves all his love for the tabloid newspaper, first published in 1879, because, he says, he “built it”. He derides his elder, libertarian son, Clyde (Brandon McClelland), as “Fatty”, even while acknowledging Clyde’s “nous”. An early voice of reason who strives for “balanced coverage”, Clyde will soon drop out of the family machine and take to wearing kaftans. “It’s a curse,” he decides of the Packer life.
At first, Frank dismisses his younger son, Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer, played as a younger man by Josh McConville, as “Dumb-Dumb” and a “cretin”, deeming a history of gambling and involvement in a car accident as rendering Kerry unworthy of playing a part, let alone succeeding him, in this new commercial investment called television. While neither of Frank’s sons meets his expectations, Packer snr admires Rupert Murdoch, owner of the rival Daily Mirror, as “the son I never had”.
Nick Bartlett and John Gaden play younger and older Rupert respectively with a poker-faced, unprepossessing insouciance. Kerry tries to persuade Rupert to buy into the loss-making Telegraph in 1972 in order to “stick it” to that other media mob, Fairfax. But media barons sense desperation and have no shame in picking the bones of rivals: Rupert tells Kerry he doesn’t see the point in “togetherness”, though he does coldly inquire about rumours of Frank’s fading eyesight, an echo of his later query of James about Kerry’s heart health.
The Belvoir theatre opening-night audience laughed cruelly at the play’s opening scene, no doubt because the memorable news event of 1990 it portrays is still in the memory of many, and also because the outcome was not tragic. Here, 52-year-old Kerry (played in later life by John Howard in his dual role) lies prostrate on the polo field after a massive heart attack. His 23-year-old son, James (portrayed as an adult by McConville), is screaming out for the services of renowned heart surgeon Victor Chang.
Doubling in the casting of the play – all the roles and actors are male – serves to make a sophisticated point about inherited toxic masculinity; that learnt behaviour can be so indelible that, whether it’s father or son, you’re essentially dealing with the same man. Nonetheless, the earliest, swiftest role swaps anticipate possibly too much of a broad audience’s agility: McConville, introduced as young James in the first scene, is suddenly playing young Kerry in the second scene; in the third scene, Howard, who was introduced as Kerry in the first scene, walks on as Frank.
It took a few moments for me to register these early and very quick role changes, which shift back and forth in the first act, and I wondered how people less familiar with the Packer dynasty may have fared in keeping up with the flashbacks. McConville’s physical embodiment of his dual roles, meanwhile, matches his compelling emotional intensity, not least when he performs a neat shaman’s trick to transform before our eyes from a young to less-young Kerry. He removes his wig to reveal a naturally bald pate and, his torso uncovered, distends his stomach, going from buff to bellied in an instant.
Later in the first act, Howard is back playing an older Kerry, teaching his child, then known as “Jamie” (Nate Sammut and Byron Wolffe in alternate performances), to play cricket. Here we get a dose of the Packer brutality: Kerry won’t allow Jamie to wear a helmet while batting, and instructs a former English Test cricketer who is bowling to Jamie to “set it at Jeff Thomson speed”. Family lore states that grandfather Frank built his fortune after first placing a winning horse bet from a bob a stranger had dropped. So the message is that the family empire, which now includes World Series Cricket, requires swift action to maintain it, lest it be lost just as quickly.
Kerry Packer is viewed in this play through a witheringly unsympathetic lens: sexist (“Anyone who can’t face a cricket ball should be in a skirt”), lecherous (“I’d like to touch your page three”, he tells Rupert Murdoch, and, on his death bed, “When I want my balls tongued I book a bordello”), homophobic (a camp male nurse is a “shirt-lifter” and a “cunt”), and a loathsome dad. “You’re fucking useless,” Kerry tells Jamie, so it comes as a surprise when he later tells his son as an adult that he loves him, a grace note to an otherwise damning portrayal.
All of this crucial family history of an empire’s rise sets up the second act, for the fall we know is coming. Abetted by our knowledge of a cruel Packer dad and granddad, McConville achieves the seemingly impossible and makes us feel sympathy for James Packer. This despite the hypocrisy of a family that published tabloid newspapers and magazines and produced current affairs shows that invaded the lives of others but insisted on privacy from fellow media proprietors for its own travails; despite James selling off his father’s media interests and investing the family fortune in casinos and gambling, swapping his greatest potential to contribute to the Australian culture with an industry that by and large yields misery for those who can least afford it; despite blowing millions of dollars on yachts destined to never make him happy.
The fall comes after James buys into the One.Tel company in 1995 – funded by a bank loan off his own bat to impress his father – attempting to enter the coming century of new media. “This little device is going to rule the world,” he tells an ailing and sceptical Kerry, holding up a mobile phone. James’s prediction about our addiction to screens is right, but his diffidence and ill judgement leads him to place excessive faith in IT entrepreneur Jodee Rich, played here comically as a slick snake-oil salesman in Lycra bike pants and rollerskates by Anthony Harkin.
The play posits that James, skylarking and rolling around on the floor with Rich, comes to see him as the brother he never had. James enters a One.Tel deal with the more assured son of Rupert, Lachlan (Nick Bartlett again), but Murdoch snr sees the danger: “I open Forbes and I see these new faces,” he warns, reflecting on how his own family built an empire over 50 years. “And these boys just pop up. Pop. That’s not viable.”
Wily Rupert is right, and we watch as the share price plummets, the debt mounts and an ailing Kerry chastises James for paying “gallons more” than his competitors in a spectrum auction, berating him for having “fucked up”. We see the pressure placed on James, the vision of Kerry always on his shoulder, as James gives voice to his darkest thoughts. McConville is terrific at playing characters with anger and frustration simmering below the surface – unleashed with jolting impact when he played a recently paroled criminal in The Boys at Griffin Theatre – and here he invests James with subtle shades of suffering worthy of our empathy. “I want. I want. I want,” he says, and we understand why: he yearns to for once be his own man.
Women are conspicuous in their total absence in this world. Of Kerry’s wife, Ros, we are told only she prefers The Women’s Weekly to Cleo; we learn James has a sister named Gretel only as her brother’s passing thought. While Clyde Packer returns in ghostly conscience form, barely any detritus of the Packer and Murdoch women is detectable. It’s a man’s world, and that’s the point, and the great patriarchal pity.
Packer & Sons is being performed at the Belvoir in Sydney until January 5.
VISUAL ART Matisse & Picasso
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, December 13–April 13
MULTIMEDIA I hope you get this: Raquel Ormella
Penrith Regional Gallery, until March 22
Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth, December 13–14
CULTURE West: Out on the Edge
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, until May 10
LITERATURE Spoken: Celebrating Queensland Languages
State Library of Queensland Gallery, Brisbane, until April 19
MUSIC Home Alone in Concert
Hamer Hall, Melbourne, December 13–14
INSTALLATION Mike Parr: The Eternal Opening
Carriageworks, Sydney, until December 8
DANCE Tarnanthi – Blood on the Dance Floor
Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide, until December 8
CULTURE A Very Koorie Krismas
Federation Square, Melbourne, December 8
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 7, 2019 as "Loathsome cowboys".
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