Tycoon. Dynasty. Newspaperman. Mogul.
They’re dated words in Australian discourse yet the story of the Packer family men, told in Tommy Murphy’s meticulously researched and generation-spanning new play, breathes life powerfully back into them.
And into some other words, too; few of them kind.
Words such as “when I want my balls touched I book a bordello”, from an older Kerry Packer (John Howard), who has just cracked the shits with a room of “boys in long shorts”, including his son James Packer (Josh McConville). They are trying to persuade him of the internet’s merits but it’s circa 2000 and they can’t get the damn dial-up to work.
The masthead was the Daily Telegraph and, for a fee of $15m, that’s exactly what happened when the newspaper’s team moved from Packer’s inner city headquarters to Murdoch’s Holt Street home.
News Corp is still there. It’s seven-minute walk from Belvoir theatre. Not that it matters, at this point, where in Sydney you are. From Crown Casino at Barangaroo, to pubs and clubs with cricket on the TV, to the Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay, resident venue of Sydney Theatre Company: the Packer legacy is everywhere.
Directed by Belvoir boss Eamon Flack, Murphy (Mark Colvin’s Kidney, Holding the Man) has fished out key moments from the abundant reservoir of Packer dynasty wheeling and dealing to show how James became James and Kerry became Kerry. To which end Howard also plays the cruel and crotchety OG Packer patriarch, Frank Packer, who barks at his son who’s in a hospital bed with a broken hip: “Stand up to greet your father.”
But something happens when Howard plays Kerry. While his charisma and lumbering heft as an actor is indistinguishable from Packer’s, we still land a two-for-one deal. You sense Howard remains Howard, too: delighting in the chance to inhabit such a brutally enjoyable character.
The story is concerned not with how the mothers, aunts, sisters or wives shaped these men but how they, as the family boys, were rammed into the patriarchal Packer mold.
It is fitting the play’s development was funded via the David Williamson Prize for Excellence in Writing for Australian Theatre, as it is a quintessentially Australian story. We already know a lot, by osmosis, about the Packers and Murphy doesn’t waste words rehashing it. As a result, though, the script would be unintelligible to non-Australian audiences. Younger audiences, too, may struggle – they should certainly google “OneTel collapse” for some background first.
Bar some noisy helicopter landings, the production stays fairly minimal, requiring little more than suits that modernise for each era and a set that slides into a Packer-occupied hospital ward more times than you’d think possible. (But actually quite possible given how often Kerry was critically ill or clinically dead only to barrel back into the boardroom, Lazarus-like, to belittle his son.)
He doesn’t have the brutish build of James, but McConville is an impressively physical actor and wonderful in the role. He brings nuance to James’s desire to please, and sympathy to the burden of the crown. Sometimes he does this merely through peals of boyish laughter, which, as an infectious laugh will, warms you to him almost completely.
McConville is responsible, too, for an unforgettable early scene. He is playing young Kerry, muscular and shirtless, and hauling himself from hospital bed to ashtray where a cigarette smolders. He inhales – and transforms. His chest caves, his shoulders slope, he smears his wig off and his belly billows out. The flesh of his face seems to actually droop. McConville becomes the bullish businessman of legend literally before our eyes. You won’t see a better metamorphosis this side of a cocoon.
So much happens! The rise and fall of OneTel, for starters. OneTel boss Jodee Rich (Anthony Harkin) is a character we can both like and laugh at, all expensive shorts, carpe diem buzzwords and wanky rollerblades. While Bartlett doesn’t nail young Rupert’s snakiness, the sheen and sharpness of his performance as Lachlan Murdoch is pitch-perfect.
The exchanges between Lachlan and James, as OneTel crumbles, are surprisingly satisfying to watch. It’s not only schadenfreude. It’s just great theatre – all the way to a crucial phone call that’s lagging due to a dodgy international line.
While Packer is racked by fear of his father, Lachlan says of Rupert: “He never raises his voice. He doesn’t have to.” From that fine character needlework, Murphy zooms out to express, with a line that seems offhand, the essence of white male privilege for two men who have just lost millions. Bewildered by James’s suffering, but trying hard to empathise, Lachlan says: “We’re hurting mate. But we’re never going to be eating out of bins.”