Australia

Who wants to play Rupert Murdoch?

News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch arrives at his apartment in London 11 July 2011 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption "Taking on the dragon": The challenges of playing Rupert Murdoch

A lead role in a West End stage show is something many actors would kill for. But when you have to play media baron Rupert Murdoch in a satirical pageant based on his life, it seems some people get cold feet.

Australian playwright David Williamson's play Rupert is slated to open in London's West End in the first half of 2015.

It comes after a successful debut in Melbourne in 2013, a revival at the World Stages theatre festival in Washington DC in March this year, and another season soon to open in Sydney.

But without a big name signed on for London, it's not a done deal, says Williamson.

"All commercial productions rely on getting a cast that will attract an audience and we've found that some actors are actually scared of playing Rupert on stage."

"The man has so much power and quite understandably, people - and that includes actors - don't want to offend him. He owns Fox Studios, for heavens' sake!"

Taking on 'the dragon'

The Sydney revival of Rupert, which opens on 29 November in the city's Theatre Royal, will star the 74-year-old American stage and screen actor James Cromwell, who has brushed aside any concerns for his future career.

"I like taking on the dragon," he told an Australian media outlet. "And Murdoch is definitely the dragon… I'm not at the beginning of my career."

Image copyright JAMES CROMWELL
Image caption Hollywood actor James Cromwell will play Mr Murdoch at a Sydney revival of Rupert

Williamson says he holds no fears, either. At 72, the veteran playwright says he's got nothing to be scared of.

"The lawyers went over everything very carefully," Williamson says.

"You are constrained by libel laws which, in Australia, are extraordinarily stringent. But then Rupert has never shown much interest in the stuff that gets written about him."

Mr Murdoch's media business has been headline news in the UK thanks to the lengthy deliberations of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, ethics and practices of the press.

Williamson has followed the enquiry closely and refers to it in the play.

"But I haven't had to make any substantial changes because it's not a play about the phone-hacking affair. It's the story of 60 years of a man's life," Williamson says.

"The phone hacking is such a minor part of the big picture.

"I remember people saying to me that Leveson would be the end of Murdoch. I told them, you must be joking. This is just a blip."

"I don't claim to be prescient very often but [Leveson] didn't really touch Rupert and it didn't really touch James [Murdoch]. Rupert finished? I doubt it."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Rebekah Brooks, now cleared of phone hacking charges, was among those testifying at the Leveson Inquiry

Richard and Rupert

Rupert owes more to Shakespeare's Richard III than recent events in London, Williamson says.

"Richard was someone who through boldness, opportunism, intelligence and charm gets to be king."

"Rupert starts with a failing Adelaide newspaper and becomes the most powerful voice in the English-speaking world."

Williamson says what Shakespeare's Richard does so effectively is charm the audience and draw them into his world.

"That's what I want Rupert to do. Then it's up to the audience to decided whether they want to embrace that world or not."

Image copyright DAVID WILLIAMSON
Image caption David Williamson is a veteran Australian playwright and screenwriter

If Rupert makes it to the West End, it will be the latest in a string of plays Williamson has exported to the UK.

Emerald City played at the Lyric Theatre in the late 1980s. The Removalists and Don's Party had seasons at the Royal Court.

Michael Blakemore directed a production of Travelling North at the Lyric, Hammersmith in 1980 and Madonna starred in Up For Grabs at Wyndham's Theatre in 2002.

"London isn't the be-all for me," says Williamson. "If it happens, then great, but it's not my ultimate ambition anymore."

"I'm just really happy I can still write plays that people respond to."

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