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A play in search of a Rupert

Who should play Murdoch in the West End?

Jasper Rees | October 24th 2014

Actors adore playing a powerful real-life villain. It’s where all the fun is. More than 20 actresses have played Margaret Thatcher, and Michael Sheen got such a buzz from playing Tony Blair that he did it three times. But there’s one role of this type for which no bargepole seems quite long enough. The name Rupert Murdoch is sending shivers down actors' spines. 

So says the playwright David Williamson. He is best known internationally for "Up For Grabs", which came to the West End a decade or so back with Madonna in the lead role. Now he's written a play, spanning six decades, called "Rupert". It premiered in Melbourne last year and nipped over to Washington, DC in March, with Sean O'Shea playing Murdoch in both productions. Now it's opening in Sydney, starring James Cromwell. But what about the West End, whither it is destined next year? Apparently they're having casting trouble. “We've found that some actors are actually scared of playing Rupert on stage," Williamson has said. "The man has so much power, and quite understandably, people—and that includes actors—don't want to offend him. He owns Fox Studios, for heaven's sake.”

What a load of yellowbellies. Murdoch has been done before. In "Selling Hitler", an ITV drama about the fake Führer diaries, Barry Humphries found just the right blend of joshing bully and crude thug. He delivered with gusto a wonderful line when booting an editor upstairs to the position of Editor Emeritus. “That’s Latin,” he roared in broad Ocker. “E means you’re out, and meritus means you deserve it.”

If Humphries doesn’t fancy another crack, who else might work? Anthony Hopkins, who once played Murdoch-like Lambert Le Roux in "Pravda" (1985), the bruising play by David Hare and Howard Brenton, is the same vintage as Murdoch, but alas has long since given up on the stage. How about Ralph Fiennes, who stepped into Le Roux’s bovver boots for a scene when the National Theatre celebrated its 50th birthday last year? Too serious maybe, although on the plus side he made a chilling Voldemort.

If it’s laughs the role calls for, there’s Steve Coogan, who once upon a time gave us his Rupert in the satirical puppet show "Spitting Image". Perhaps, with the help of latex, he might like to have another go as part of his highly public campaign against the phone hacking practised by Murdoch’s newspapers.

Or there’s always Jonathan Pryce, who has played many megalomaniacs including, in the Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies", a ruthless media baron who furtively tries to ignite a war between Britain and China so that he can secure the broadcast rights. Not remotely based on anyone at all.

So, plenty of candidates know the ropes. But we shouldn’t entirely rule out the best option of the lot. He would never get blacklisted by Fox or hacked by a tabloid. And he can certainly do the accent. Why, he’s even played the part a couple of times before, on "The Simpsons". Step forward, Rupert. It’s your turn to face the critics.

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