Quiz and Sympathy

My last year studying dramaturgy, we were all assigned to lead a class during our final seminar, and I attempted to lead a session about casting and dramaturgy. I did a terrible job– I think I’d do better now– but it also seemed to me that most of my classmates didn’t seem to agree with my central premise that casting is a feature of dramaturgy, and that it can and should be part of a dramaturg’s job to concern themselves with casting.

One element of this is more in the news now than it was even then: the possibilities and pitfalls of changing the gender or race or other identifiers of the character or actor playing the character, and whether this change is reflected in the text or is “blind,” and whether good intentions for diversity outweigh the potential for important implications if the casting choices aren’t considered important enough.

But after seeing James Graham’s Quiz on the West End yesterday, I found myself thinking about the more basic type of casting I attempted to lead a discussion about in that class: the simple ways in which the actor you choose to embody a character changes how an audience feels about them. My thesis at Columbia was ultimately about the ways this can change when a character’s gender changes, but this is true even when the basics of the character remain and only the actor changes.

I found Gavin Spokes, who plays Major Charles Ingram in Quiz, to be immensely appealing. I voted him in both the first and second acts, and immediately had to hurry home to Google what had become of him. But then something funny happened: looking at pictures of the actual Ingram, reading some of his quotes, I found I liked him less. I didn’t find the real Ingram as endearing as Spokes’s version at all, and it set me to wondering how I would have voted if someone more like the real Ingram had been cast. My parents and I were shocked by the results of the final audience vote, but they pointed out that people who actually remember the whole scandal were probably more biased against Ingram than we were as totally neutral outsiders, who knew nothing of the story going in. But maybe a more unappealing Ingram– or the memory of the actual one superimposed over Spokes’s sweeter version– would have swayed us another way.

This got me thinking of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which I first saw during its off-Broadway run at Ars Nova, then again when it was in its midtown Kazino location, and for a final time on Broadway. After seeing it at Kazino, I found myself feeling some sympathy for Anatole, the amoral antagonist who jilts Natasha, the heroine. Maybe he really did love her, I thought, and his crime was not heartlessness, but weakness, an inability to own up to his circumstances and responsibilities. But then, between the Kazino and Broadway runs, I listened to the cast recording a lot. And the more I listened, the more repulsive Anatole seemed. He was a cowardly, heartless, thoughtless creep (and an emblem of the kind of unthinking privilege that makes the show much more relevant to our current moment than I think even the critics who liked it gave it credit for, but nevermind).

It should be noted that Lucas Steele, who played Anatole, is– as the show puts it– hot. Extremely hot. Distractingly hot. Like, sufficiently so to distract you, maybe, from how awful Anatole is because he’s just so freaking attractive. But just hearing his voice on the recording– though he also has an amazing voice– grants enough distance from his physical beauty to focus on the ugliness of his behavior. This is, of course, exactly what happens to Natasha in the show, so maybe it was intentional.

This is all, of course, absurdly subjective. There are actors who will make me hate a character simply because they are the one playing the role, and there’s nothing a director can do about that. But it’s so easy to lose track of the ways in which the simplest of casting choices– not even dramatic ones like race or gender, but straightforward ones like whether it’s White Guy A or White Guy B, can completely change the audience’s experience of the character and story– and thus, actually change the story itself.

Review: Ink

Politics and analytics website FiveThirtyEight recently came out with the conclusion of their series evaluating the role of the media in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. There have been similar analyses and reckonings regarding the role of the press in the outcome of the Brexit vote, all pointing, like the FiveThirtyEight piece, to one question: how did all of this happen? 

James Graham’s new play Ink, transferred to the West End from the Almeida, proposes that our world today is nothing but the natural culmination of a shift in media culture set into motion a long time ago.

It’s an indirect connection, however. The play doesn’t directly address anything about the present day: it’s all set in 1969 and 1970, and concerns the purchase of failing newspaper The Sun by an Australian upstart named Rupert Murdoch, who woos Larry Lamb, a working-class former reporter with a chip on his shoulder, to be its editor. Murdoch’s goal: to embrace capitalism, not any lofty notions of journalistic responsibility, in order to crush the narrow-minded elites of Fleet Street. Most of all, he wants to surpass the circulation numbers of the most popular newspaper in the world, The Mirror— which just happens to be Lamb’s former paper, where he never received the editorship he felt he deserved.

Though Murdoch is the more internationally famous name, Lamb, played with slouchy Northern charm by Richard Coyle, spends most of the play as the guiltier party in the game of dragging the ideals of journalistic integrity into the populist, lowest-common-denominator mud. Murdoch is the distant, awkward money man, prone to fits of scruples and prudishness; Lamb accepts his mission to give the people what they want, to do whatever it takes to beat the Mirror, and (almost) never wavers from it.

Though his role is the smaller of the two central characters, Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch begins the play, and is magnetically fascinating. Carvel is an improbable chameleon. His voice is incredibly distinctive, his choices in physicality and characterization all similarly strange, and yet every character he plays seems completely different and completely human. He is always himself (or at least whatever version of that appears onstage), but he can always seem to shift that same essence into something different. Murdoch is no exception.

Rupert Goold finds the perfect staging language to complement Graham’s not-quite-naturalistic script. This, along with Graham’s sparkly dialogue, help elevate what is otherwise a fairly standard structure and recognizable Fleet Street Faustian story arc. Clever movement sequences and even a bit of singing create cinematic-feeling montages, most of which are recognizable from any movie about young upstarts: the “getting the gang of misfits together” montage, the “spitballing new ideas” montage, the “look at our successes” montage. Even if they follow a slightly familiar pattern, they are– much like the newspaper this band of outcasts is trying to build– cheeky and fun, and thus mostly avoid cliche. As the play moves into its darker second act, the pace grows even more driving.

The protagonists’ moral downfall (and it’s surely not a spoiler to say that there is one, since both the play’s structure and actual history make this obvious) hinges on two crises, both of which center around women: one murdered, and one naked. The latter subplot introduces a laudable, if not wholly integrated, attempt to include the perspective of a woman of color in this very white, very male world and play. It also somehow comes off as seeming more depraved, more scandalous, and more heartless than the murder. Graham’s script seems generally uncertain about how to draw the moral lines around what Lamb and Murdoch are trying to do, when to suggest they have gone too far. Though it’s clearly intentional that the play lacks a clear right and wrong, the characters lack a clear moral compass, too, which is a detriment when telling the story of men selling their souls for success. Lamb and Murdoch trade off moments of hesitation, only to be seduced once more by their own power and success– but these waverings don’t always come off as totally logical. They seem to swap capitalist ruthlessness for scrupulous reticence as needed to balance the other’s state of mind, not out of their own convictions.

Lamb and Murdoch’s rivals are relentlessly painted as stuffy, snobby, and elitist, with only glimpses of sympathy for their position. Given that all the weight of our present media crises falls firmly on their side of things, perhaps the play can stand to stack its cards– at least at first– in favor of the broad-minded populists. But with hollow protestations of working-class solidarity on the one side and ivory tower elitism on the other, Graham certainly presents two dispiriting poles, with very little hope for what could come in the middle.

But, as Murdoch says in the play, it’s a writer’s job to hold the mirror up to society– it’s not their fault if we don’t like what we see.