Reviews

Corruption ***1/2

By: Samuel L. Leiter

March 18, 2024: American playwright J.T. Rogers’s Corruption is a sprawling, two hour and 40-minute, political docudrama based on a major British scandal involving the hacking into as many as 11,000 private phones—from the royal family to the person in the street—by unscrupulous journalists.  It broke out during this century’s first decade and played out in 2010 and 2011, when the play is set.The riveting details were described in a 2012 book by two of its central participants—Labour Party member of Parliament Tom Watson and Guardian journalist Martin Hickman—titled Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain

John Behlmann, Eleanor Handley and Toby Stephens.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

March 18, 2024: American playwright J.T. Rogers’s Corruption is a sprawling, two hour and 40-minute, political docudrama based on a major British scandal involving the hacking into as many as 11,000 private phones—from the royal family to the person in the street—by unscrupulous journalists.  It broke out during this century’s first decade and played out in 2010 and 2011, when the play is set.The riveting details were described in a 2012 book by two of its central participants—Labour Party member of Parliament Tom Watson and Guardian journalist Martin Hickman—titled Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain

 The cast of Corruption.

J.T. Rogers, who adapted the Watson-Hickman book for this episodic play, says in his program notes that he did his own interviews, read hearing transcripts, and added “scenes that are invented whole cloth.” The latter clause probably relates mainly to private conversations but nonetheless raises questions of veracity in a work about that very thing.

Rogers’s reliance on both Watson-Hickman and his own research has necessitated a play composed of multiple scenes and close to 50 characters divvied up among 13 actors. Only two roles are played by a single (British) actor each: MP Watson (Toby Stephens), and Rebekah Brooks (Saffron Burrows), the superpowered newspaper executive associated with Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, especially the tabloid News of the World, forced by the scandal to close. 

 Seth Numrich, Dylan Baker and Saffron Burrows.

So many characters are present (not Murdoch, though), and the actors’ alterations so minimally suggested by costumer Jennifer Moeller, that it’s occasionally impossible amid the roiling dramatics to identify who’s who. Apart from the more well-known ones, like Prime Minister Gordon Brown (Anthony Cochrane), few mean anything to most Americans. One wonders, for instance, how many can identify multimillionaire Max Mosley (well played by Michael Siberry), who, angry about his sexual behavior having been exposed by the yellow press, becomes a significant backer of Watson and his team’s inquiries.

The hackers’ goal was to dig up dirt on their victims, either to provide fodder for sensationalistic stories or to support a political candidate or party. During ensuing investigations, which dredged up evidence of bribery in the upper echelons of Scotland Yard intended to keep the law at bay, accusatory fingers were aimed at major figures in Murdoch’s world. This led, among others, to the resignations of Brooks and Murdoch’s own son, James (Seth Numrich), both significant participants here.

 The cast of Corruption.

Corruption exposes both the public and private pressures those involved endured. These include insights into the personal lives of Watson and his wife, Siobhan (Robyn Kerr), whose fear for the safety of their family makes her ask Tom to desist from his inquiries, and of Brooks and her new husband, Charlie (John Behlmann), a horse trainer, who are having a baby via a surrogate (Kerr). Domestic scenes are mingled with discussions in offices and dining/drinking places, as well as in government hearing rooms, with the participants seated around horseshoe-shaped tables. As Tom Watson recruits willing aides in his quest to expose the hackers, the stage bristles with talk of surveillance, political and journalistic ethics, and dark forces sending threatening messages to those who stand up to the malefactors. 

Under the bullet-paced, movement-packed direction of Bartlett Sher (who also staged Rogers’s Oslo at Lincoln Center), the actors are never less than energized, their pedal-to-the-medal intensity accompanied by lots—too much, for my taste—of argumentative shouting. Stephens rips along as Tom Watson, the pouchy, salty-tongued, antiheroic protagonist—a man himself guilty of having used his position to demean fellow politicians—with gale-force power. As his chief antagonist, Rebekah Brooks, the titian-haired, glamorous Burrows stands out as a cyclonic, profane exec who insists on the necessity of newspapers in the face of their dismissal by James Murdoch, who sees newspapers as a “relic,” with the future being “television and new media. Everything else is expendable.” 

Sanjit De Silva as Martin Hickman and Toby Stephens

Brooks, for all her paper’s involvement in the contretemps, remained a Murdoch favorite who rose only higher in his domain. Her editor, Andy Coulson (Numrich), prosecuted and convicted, served five months in prison before charges against him were dropped.

Numerous social, domestic, political, business, and media-related issues tumble over each other, some quite interesting, but inevitably bursting with discursive overload. Increasingly, it becomes clear that the destructive conditions represented have become so embedded in the social fabric that we are already living in a media-controlled, dystopian world, in which the only value that counts is profit. To take one chilling example, Tom Crone (the excellent Dylan Baker), chief counsel (as he keeps reminding everyone) for Murdoch’s News Corp, has this exchange with Watson:

Toby Stephens as Tom Watson.

CRONE: You are fighting a war that is already over. Because the world that you are fighting for no longer exists. Government, privacy, truth: these are malleable now. To be changed, or discarded, as those above us see fit.

TOM: And is this new world to your liking, Tom?

CRONE: Immaterial. It simply is the world in which we live.

TOM: I can see why Uncle Rupert keeps you around. Neither of you seem to actually believe in anything.

The cast performs on the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre’s circular thrust stage, minimally furnished by designer Michael Yeargan with rolling desk chairs and tables continuously shifted into new configurations under precise choreography employing both the actors and—distractingly—black-garbed crew members with headsets. Overhead hangs a large circle ringed inside and out with TV screens, their myriad images (59 Projections doing an award-level job) often repeating the countless videos, many of talking heads-style news pronouncements, flashed on the cyclorama-like wall encircling the upstage area. Further establishing the show’s high production values, Donald Holder’s exciting lighting works perfectly with Justin Ellington’s dramatic sound score to punctuate the action. 

Anthony Cochrane and Toby Stephens.

Corruption has lots, perhaps too much, to say about the many issues it confronts. It remains more a cerebral than an emotional exercise, despite the histrionics to which its conflicts give rise. And, for all its pertinence to American concerns when it comes to Murdoch’s insidious influence on our media and politics—can you believe he just last week was one of the awardees of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Leadership Award? —the hacking scandal seems, for the moment, anyway, more a British problem than an American one.

Corruption ***1/2
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre
150 W. 65th Street, NYC
Open run
Photography: T. Charles Erickson

Robyn Kerr and Toby Stephens.