Monday, March 18, 2024

Journalism on Stage: The Connector and Corruption

Sanjit De Silva and Toby Stephens in Corruption. (Photo: T Charles Erickson)

In his new play, Corruption, which opened last week at Lincoln Center, the excellent American political playwright J.T. Rogers dramatizes the scandal in Britain that brought down Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper News of the World when it was revealed that phone hacking and police bribery were commonplace procedures at the publication. Most of the targets were show-biz celebrities, politicians and members of the royal family, but the investigation showed that the phones of thousands of ordinary citizens had also been hacked, including those of a murdered schoolgirl and the relatives of victims of the 2005 London bombings. Rogers’s previous plays include The Overwhelming (about the Rwandan genocide), Blood and Gifts (about the war in Afghanistan) and the Tony Award-winning Oslo (about the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine). Corruption is based on Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain, an account of the scandal co-written by two men who took major roles in illuminating it: Tom Watson, a Member of Parliament (and future Labour Party Deputy Leader) serving on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and Martin Hickman, a journalist for The Independent.

Rogers has chosen Watson (played by Toby Stephens) as his protagonist, but he doesn’t attempt to whitewash him: as government whip during Gordon Brown’s tenure as Prime Minister, his assertiveness crossed the line into bullying and intimidation. When Watson attempts to enlist a fellow MP, Chris Bryant (K. Todd Freeman), in the uncovering of the News of the World debacle, Bryant’s initial reluctance is personal: he hasn’t forgiven Tom for homophobic slurs, and when he does join the fight he insists that their collaboration isn’t an indication of friendship. Still, the lines that separate the good guys from the bad guys in this drama are very clear. It’s an intelligent, well-acted production, exciting (especially in the second act), directed by Bartlett Sher (who staged both Oslo and Blood and Gifts) with his usual command of rhythm and tempo and his highly skillful choreographing of ensembles, and Michael Yeargan has designed a fine set, a halo of screens playing news clips that spins over the stage. But by definition agit-prop plays aren’t subtle. The English playwright James Graham, who wrote Ink (about Murdoch’s early career) and Dear England among others, tends to present rousing material in an entertaining fashion in the first act and then convince himself in the second that he’s making a profound statement; you end up feeling cheated. Rogers reaches farther in Blood and Gifts and certainly in Oslo, which is his best work; in Corruption he’s satisfied to let the material speak for itself. I don’t think that’s a failing; neither the play nor the production makes extravagant claims for itself, and the subject matter is undeniably compelling and infuriating. But his writing here has more punch than elegance.