Play about Rupert Murdoch: A great story that may turn out to be untrue

Sean O’Shea opens David Williamson’s play “Rupert” with a riff on Rupert Murdoch’s Twitter account. “#howgoodami” O’Shea announces, after pretending to tweet about audience attendance at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center Thursday night. It’s the kind of moment that could seem like a desperate lurch toward hipness, but it’s really a signal that the play means to provide you with the same unmediated Murdoch that we usually get only 140 characters at a time.

Guy Edmonds plays “Young Rupert” from an indifferent student with a bust of Lenin on his windowsill to a world-straddling media baron to a man white-knuckling his grip on an empire amid scandals, dueling heirs and expensive divorces.

Sean O’Shea as Rupert (Jeff Busby/courtesy Kennedy Center)

The story, of course, unfolds at the direction of O’Shea’s Rupert, who constantly manipulates the action. He pauses other players with a remote control, hams it up in the background as Edmonds dances around or tramples over ethical lines, offers asides to the audience that Frank Underwood would admire. “Good patriotic Americans wept with relief!” he proclaims, half-seriously, about the launch of Fox News.

There’s always another tale skulking about outside Rupert’s careful frame, however. He might see himself as a guy who prospered due to grit, will and luck, always finding an escape hatch into a treasure room, but other characters offer a counter-narrative, sometimes just by standing nearby and yelling at him, like Guardian readers who won some sort of contest. Neither Rupert pays much mind to the critics, who clearly had some support in the audience — applause broke out on my right and left when one character criticized Republicans.

But the glee with which O’Shea recounts Murdoch’s life echoes the thing that drives so many people crazy about Murdoch — the more they treat him like a “genocidal tyrant” (an actual Murdoch complaint), the more fun he has. And “Rupert” is a gas, even if sometimes I wondered how many references people who weren’t media reporters or serial readers of unauthorized biographies would get. The Bancroft family’s fecklessness. The toffs in Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport committee. The pledges not to interfere with editorial operations, which rarely outlast the scene in which they’re introduced.

The play at times also dives deep into Australian political and media history — OK, any dive into those subjects is deep to me — experiences that helped rocket young Rupert out of Adelaide but maybe could get a gloss for us non-antipodes.

Indeed, as much as the Murdoch onstage says he despises the “açaí-eating, climate-denying inner-city greens” — who remind him of the upper class twits who tried to keep him out of power in Britain — he saves his most poisonous words for politicians, simpering opportunists whom he can watch, lips curled with glee, as they slink back begging him not to kick them again. (Tony Blair at one point polishes young Rupert’s shoes.)

O’Shea’s Rupert never lets Edmonds’ leave the stage. “Stop whinging and do it!” he bellows when Young Rupert suggests it’s time for the older actor to take over. It’s one of a few moments where his happy-pirate demeanor slips into something darker, more defiant. After discussing his supposed beliefs, O’Shea says, “I believe in Rupert Murdoch,” in what’s supposed to be a revelation but feels more like the kind of dodgy story in Murdoch’s The Sun that Editor Kelvin MacKenzie described as not lies but “great stories that later turned out to be untrue.”

Then again, “Rupert” makes no claims to accurate biography. “I don’t believe in true stories,” Lee Lewis writes in a director’s note. “That may well be the result of growing up in the era of Murdoch press.” Like Murdoch’s more downmarket media outlets and O’Shea’s impish character, “Rupert” can be a lot of fun. It’s a rough approximation of a life — and if it’s more entertaining than the truth, well, that kind of makes it more authentic.

The Melbourne Theatre Company’s “Rupert” appears at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., through Saturday.

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