WASHINGTON — Rupert Murdoch is getting the cabaret treatment in a new play about his 60 years building a newspaper and television empire.
As a media mogul with strong ties to Australia, Great Britain and the U.S., Murdoch’s story is helping to open a major international theater festival in Washington. The new play “Rupert” from the Melbourne Theatre Co. made its U.S. premiere Wednesday after a successful run in his native Australia.
The production is part of the “World Stages” festival organized by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts that lasts throughout March with short runs of 13 different plays and two readings of new works, representing every continent but Antarctica. It’s an ambitious undertaking with more plays in one month than many theaters stage in an entire year.
“Rupert” is a funny, cabaret revue-style show where the media mogul jokes, tap dances and narrates his own story from his first small newspaper editing job in Australia to the creation of Fox News and the phone-hacking scandal at his tabloids in the United Kingdom.
Australia’s ambassador to the U.S. attended the opening in Washington, along with guests of the embassy in the Washington theater crowd.
Australian playwright David Williamson said he wanted to explore how Murdoch became one of the most powerful voices in the world. He also wanted to look at his personality and tactics mixing news, commentary and political opinion in media. Williamson said he lets “Rupert” argue for why he’s been a force for good, and Murdoch the narrator throws in a few jokes about The Washington Post and jabs at CNN.
“It’s up to the audience to work out whether they agree with his arguments or not,” Williamson said. “We thought it was better to do it that way than to finger point and say this is an evil man.”
Still, Williamson said he finds Murdoch’s influence and vast media ownership in Australia to be dangerous. He said he read nearly everything ever written about Murdoch in writing the play. The story follows Murdoch’s journey from being an Australian, then English, then an American — and his influence on politics in each country.
Williamson said he was eager to bring the play to the U.S., in part because “Fox News has changed the political climate of the whole nation, in a way.” Plans call for the production to travel next to London and perhaps other U.S. theaters after that.
Some members of Murdoch’s family saw the play in Australia and gave the playwright mostly positive feedback. Murdoch has not seen the play yet, Williamson said. The U.S. production is nearly identical to the original.
“There was a feeling that perhaps the American audience won’t be interested in the Australian political history, but to us, it was important to show how he first came to exercise power over governments back in Australia,” Williamson said.
The festival also includes theater companies from Brazil, Chile, China, Iraq, Israel, Mexico and 14 other countries. Many works are being shown in the U.S. for the first time.
“I think it’s an opportunity for us to share with our audiences work that they might never see otherwise,” said Alicia Adams, the festival’s curator at the Kennedy Center. The productions from each country represent “the best directors, the best artists and the best writers”
Some highlights include a new production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with puppets and reuniting the team behind the Tony Award-winning play “War Horse.” The production comes from the Bristol Old Vic theater and South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company.
An Israeli theater production features 11 actors who are all deaf and blind telling a story of their inner world through the process of making bread on stage in “Not by Bread Alone.” By the end, the actors invite the audience on stage, Adams said.
Four art installations at the center also look at the creative process behind theater. There’s an extensive display of more than 50 puppets from the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, showing the progression from drawings and early puppets to the large horse puppet, Joey, from “War Horse.”
Another installation features sketches for costume designs from “Wicked,” ”The Lion King” and other American theater productions.
The festival runs through March 30.
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