“One of my favourite dramas of all time is Shakespeare’s Richard III. And I did see parallels with Rupert [Murdoch],” celebrated Australian playwright David Williamson told Crikey.

“The insignificant little hunchback by a combination of cunning, boldness, utter ruthlessness, charm, when necessary, and a sense of timing becomes King of England. Rupert, of course, hasn’t murdered his brother and seduced the wife of the man he’s just murdered within the first 10 minutes of the play, but then Richard comes to a grisly end, whereas Rupert survives everything and his share prices and fortune keep rising.

“So in that sense his story is even more remarkable.”

Even more remarkable than Shakespeare’s murderous monarch? Williamson is in a good position to judge: he’s spent the past year tinkering with a play on the media mogul, which will have its world premiere in Melbourne next month. As rehearsals with director Lee Lewis begin in Melbourne, last-minute rewrites are still taking place; Murdoch’s recent divorce from Wendi Deng will be included, along with the unfolding legal challenges in Britain around phone-hacking and bribery at News Corporation newspapers. With the show opening on August 24, the difficulty for Williamson will be knowing when to stop.

The prolific theatremaker and liberal-minded National Treasure, who has captured the Australian character better than most on stage, promises to let Murdoch have his say — which seems unlikely to endear him to the audience. “I’m not sure I’ve created a sympathetic character,” the author of Australian stage classics Don’s Party and The Club, and screenwriter for Gallipoli and The Year Of Living Dangerously, admitted.

“Some of my favourite drama of late — such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men — seem to thrive on characters that are fascinating but not necessarily sympathetic. But I have let Rupert have his head. As it’s his show, a kind of Rupert cabaret, I’ve tried to give him ample opportunity to let us know why he has been such a force for good in the world.”

Melbourne Theatre Company, which commissioned the piece, promises a “political fantasia” on Murdoch’s life: “Right-wing demigod, charismatic businessman, devoted father, news baron with printer’s ink in his veins — Rupert is seemingly omniscient and omnipotent.”

Last week it announced the cast — with not one Rupert but two. Guy Edmonds (left) will play the younger Murdoch while Sean O’Shea (right) will play the newspaperman in his latter years. And this morning MTC announced the show would tour to Washington DC next year as part of an international theatre festival.

“It’s not a typical Williamson comedy, you’ll no doubt be relieved to hear,” Williamson told Crikey, referring to critics — including this one — who have often lambasted the playwright’s blunter more recent work, like the 2011 Don’s Party sequel Don Parties On. In Rupert, the material, at least, is the spikiest Williamson has dealt with in years.

“It harks back more to the rambunctious theatrical near-cabaret style of my early work for the APG [the Australian Performing Group], when Graeme Blundell used to knock on my Carlton door at near midnight and demand three pieces and a song for the political revue he was directing. I can remember Max Gillies dressed as Uncle Sam with a huge stars and stripes hat uttering my immortal lines as he surveyed an Australia ripe for the picking: ‘I see a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, a great big stoopid virgin, with very little brains.'”

Brains, at least, is not something Williamson accuses Murdoch of lacking. Scruples is another Williamson story, though he’s trying to let the audience decide for themselves.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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