Rupert; The Mourning After

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_rupertBy David Williamson | Directed by Colin McColl
Presented by Auckland Theatre CompanyQ Theatre, Auckland | June 25-July 19 

The scope and ambition of David Williamson’s character study of Rupert is massive. Fashioned as a memory play told by the infamous Rupert Murdoch himself, he recounts his days as a young man (Damien Avery) to present day media mogul (Stuart Devenie). This is a man whose reputation rests on his ruthlessness and unashamed nature, a man we love to hate. The exploitative nature of running tabloids is nothing to him and is the basis of the entire play.

Rupert is most successful as an extended sketch show of Murdoch’s life more than as a comprehensive character study. Practically everyone around him is reduced to one-dimensional cartoon characters. Luckily, the cast are well aware of it and go full throttle with their performances. Jeremy Birchall’s dance choreography is the icing on the cake here, happily acknowledging the farcical nature of the script.

But the inevitable structure of watching Murdoch win and triumph over supposedly insurmountable obstacles over and over again does become repetitive. Luckily, director Colin McColl does a good job adding colourful variations to each chapter of his life. The stakes might never really be that high, but it’s entertaining to watch anyway.

It’s surprisingly subdued in its commentary towards Murdoch itself though, softened by the fact that it’s all from his perspective. Yes, there’s some critique targeted at him at the very end, but it feels ineffectual at best. I found myself watching it for the cameos and caricatures more than for the story. After all, we know the ending. There are no grand lofty themes here. It’s not even really the story of how power corrupts, though Murdoch’s megalomania is thoroughly apparent.

The entire production design for the show is pure spectacle. The set by John Verryt is podium meets fashion runaway meets fortress of evil. It’s Brechtian staging for the 21st century. Tom Bogdanowicz’s background screens are also effective in pushing the narrative along as well as adding humour when appropriate. And Eilzabeth Whiting’s costumes are the right amount of over-the-top while keeping period appropriate.

Of the two Murdoch’s it is Avery who steals the show, supplying us with hard-to-resist charisma and affability despite his actual character. Devenie, while having plenty of presence, is burdened with a role that more than often fades to the background and, unfortunately, got lost amongst some of the other action during opening night. He does, however, have an unforgettable moment in the spotlight, delivering a thunderous speech of Shakespearean proportions right to the audience at the end of the show.

It’s hard to find any fault with the rest of the cast who juggle multiple roles with such expertise. The best part is how much fun you can tell they’re having with it. Stephen Lovatt is especially good as an all-American Ronald Reagan. Hera Dunleavy has fun as a slightly frisky Margaret Thatcher. Simon Prast as various antagonising forces is always reliable. And Adam Gardiner and Arlo MacDiarmid make a great comedic duo as a pair of bumbling brothers.

The familial side of the story is basically as much of a cartoon as Murdoch’s working life. There’s a lot of potential in finding an emotional heart for the story here, but ultimately it’s approached from a clinical distance. It’s only Jennifer Ward-Lealand who is able to supply any pathos to the show in the role of Anna Murdoch. JJ Fong, on the other hand, is given the unfortunate task of playing Wendi Deng, the gold-digging Asian wife. But she does well with her limited role, despite being given nothing more than a bad stereotype to work with. She’s able to bring the character’s firecracker personality to life so you can almost see what it is that Murdoch fell for in the first place.

If the show feels a little unsatisfying in the end it’s no fault of the cast and crew. Williamson’s script is basically just a fun but inoffensive recap of the life of Rupert Murdoch, overstuffed with exposition. The end result is light epic theatre served on a platter. While it’s not particularly enlightening or challenging you might learn a thing or two about Murdoch himself. And, as a superficial but snazzy look at the chapters of a man’s life, it’s more fun than it has any right to be.

img_themourningafterBy Ahi Karunaharan | Directed by Padma Akula
Presented by Prayas Theatre and Agaram Productions | Basement Theatre, Auckland | June 30-July 3

Developed from his original solo show, Ahi Karunaharan’s The Mourning After is a gentle comedy about New Zealand born Shekar (Shan Kesha) who travels to Sri Lanka to fulfill the last wishes of his father by returning his ashes to his home town. We witness a series of humorous interactions between him and the residents of this coastal village, including Raju (Ravi Gurunathan), Uncle Somu (Mustaq Missouri), and the reptilian Kabaragoya (Anjula Prakash). Then there are also the mysterious characters of Saroja (Sudeepta Vyas) and Bala (Prateek Vadgaonkar) who lurk in the background with obscure intentions.

The gentle comedy of The Mourning After is its finest asset. Seeing the characters interact and learn from each other is a richly rewarding. The cultural references both unfamiliar (the aforementioned Kabragoya) and the familiar (Indiana Jones) lend the script a warmth that this impoverished setting needs. Director Padma Akula has done a wonderful job drawing out these moments and intimacies.

However, the dramatic material in the script isn’t always so successful. The focus in the latter half of the play centers around the abandonment of the village by Shekar’s father and the scars he left behind. It tends towards melodrama and never earns the emotional catharsis it aims for. The ending in particular wraps things up too neatly, leaving loose ends to be tied up through some heavy-handed exposition. What we get, then, is two separate plays jammed together: the story of a young expatriate searching for his roots; and the story of a man who left his village, along with the people in it.

While the cast all put forth quality performances, it is the central trio played by Kesha, Gurunathan and Missouri who feel indispensable, forming the heart of the story. The rapport between the latter two is especially entertaining and feels fully formed. Prakash as the “ethnic-ey” crocodile is also a highlight, existing as a creature of pure theatrical imagination. The roles played by Vyas and Vadgaonkar, on the other hand, feel unnecessary or incomplete, functioning as dramatic plot devices more than as real characters. They do manage to lend a sense of history to their performances though, making their presences enjoyable, despite feeling forced.

Lighting by Brendan Albrey and set design Christine Urquhart come together to create a space allowing for a huge range of theatricality. A minimal set of little more than dirt strewn across the stage evokes a run-down home. Nooks and crannies off the main stage are used to great effect too. The Basement theatre has rarely felt so big, encompassing the entirety of a Sri Lankan village.

The Mourning After is a flawed story told beautifully, one with a lot of heart that struggles with balancing the comedic and the tragic elements of the script. The idea of a young man returning to his father’s hometown, a village haunted by disaster and existing in a perpetual limbo, is a moving one. While the potential of the script isn’t totally fulfilled in this production, I look forward to see what Prayas Theatre has next in store for the Auckland theatre community.