Reviews

Corruption ****, Eddie Izzard Performing Hamlet ****

By: David Sheward

March 28, 2024: Though J.T. Rogers is an American playwright, his new work Corruption at Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse Theater, has a distinct British feel to it. And it’s not just because of the subject matter—the phone-hacking scandal of 2010-11 that temporarily damaged Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and forced the closing of his sensation-seeking English tabloid News of the World. Corruption examines a political issue and how it impacts society as a whole, not just in one country but the entire world. The British tend to tackle contemporary issues in their theater while Americans are mostly content with escapist musicals or dramas of personal or family dynamics. Rogers has become the preeminent American dramatist addressing such political topics. His multiple award-winning Oslo (2016) chronicled the complex negotiations leading to the 1990s peace accords between Israel and Palestine, while Blood and Gifts (2010) shone a spotlight on the international struggle for power in Afghanistan in the 1980s. (Both were also presented at the Newhouse and directed by Bartlett Sher, who stages Corruption.)

John Behlmann, Eleanor Handley and Toby Stephens in “Corruption”.

By: David Sheward

March 28, 2024: Though J.T. Rogers is an American playwright, his new work Corruption at Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse Theater, has a distinct British feel to it. And it’s not just because of the subject matter—the phone-hacking scandal of 2010-11 that temporarily damaged Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and forced the closing of his sensation-seeking English tabloid News of the World. Corruption examines a political issue and how it impacts society as a whole, not just in one country but the entire world. The British tend to tackle contemporary issues in their theater while Americans are mostly content with escapist musicals or dramas of personal or family dynamics. Rogers has become the preeminent American dramatist addressing such political topics. His multiple award-winning Oslo (2016) chronicled the complex negotiations leading to the 1990s peace accords between Israel and Palestine, while Blood and Gifts (2010) shone a spotlight on the international struggle for power in Afghanistan in the 1980s. (Both were also presented at the Newhouse and directed by Bartlett Sher, who stages Corruption.)

Based on Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman, both characters here, tackles a trend which may have an even greatest impact than those scrutinized in his earlier plays. As Murdoch and his son James use their massive media might to acquire even more influence with the purchase of Sky Television, member of Parliament Watson, rival reporter Hickman and several others  seek to expose and punish the gigantic corporation for their unscrupulous use of hacking phones, blackmail, and perverting the truth. As Watson and his allies soon discover, Murdoch’s minions can twist the facts to their advantage with little consequence since they have bought off huge numbers of the British police and politicians. 

 Sanjit De Silva as Martin Hickman and Toby Stephens in Corruption.

Even after a qualified victory with the News of the World folding, the play delivers an ambiguous conclusion, foreshadowing Murdoch’s expanding his reach to our shores with his gobbling up of the New York Post, Wall Street Journal and Fox News. The ultimate message is Murdoch and his ilk including a certain former president now trying to recapture the White House, have made this a post-truth world and a truly fair and balanced media is the subject of a constant battle. 

Rogers’ script encompasses dozens of characters and locales, endowing them with a specificity and detail that keeps the play from becoming a dry documentary. Watson is rumpled, complex figure, formerly the political attack dog from Prime Minister Gordon Brown, he now is the crusader against the dragon of Murdoch’s NewsCorp. His main antagonist is not Rupert Murdoch (who does not appear onstage), or even his son James, but Rebekah Brooks, the shark-like editor of the News and CEO of Murdoch’s tabloids who will go as low as possible for higher circulation. Toby Stephens and Saffron Burrows   create formidable and gripping opposites in this pitched combat on the field of journalism. Stephens beautifully embodies Watson’s ambivalence and his slow-burning indignation at the corruption he finds in Murdoch’s monolithic enterprise. Burrows is the perfect foil, a machine driven by ambition, who even treats her infertility issues and hiring of a pregnancy surrogate as a business matter to be managed. But she also lets small cracks show in her otherwise invulnerable facade. 

Eddie Izzard Performing Hamlet. Photo: Amanda Searle

The large supporting cast takes on multiple roles with dexterity. Many have outstanding moments. Michael Siberry is droll as a rich anti-Murdoch donor with an unusual fetish. Dylan Baker coolly embodies both the upper-crust attorney for Murdoch and the Cockney criminal who carries out the company’s dirty work. Seth Numrich brilliantly creates two distinct personalities as the smarmy James Murdoch and the sniveling editor Andy Coulson, one of the few News of the World culprits to be indicted—but he did not serve any jail time. Robyn Kerr provides emotional depth as both Watson’s worried wife and Brooks’ suspicious surrogate. K. Todd Freeman bristles brightly as an opposition politician. John Bellman has some funny moments as Brooks’ obsequious but elegant husband and as one of Watson’s assistants. Sanjet De Silva as Hickman and T. Ryder Smith as reporter Nick Davies also give sharp portraits. 

Bartlett Sher stages this wordy, idea-dense play like an action thriller. There is a lot going on and much information to remember, but thanks to Sher’s fluid and sure-footed direction, there is no confusion as to who is who or what is what. Michael Yeargan’s arena-like set is transformed by Donald Holder’s versatile lighting and by rolling tables and chairs into several restaurants and pubs, committee meeting rooms, elegant apartments and homes and the House of Commons. Projections and videos of 59 Productions shown on the back wall and a bank of TV monitors provide context for this magnificent multi-media production.

Eddie Izzard Performing Hamlet. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Corruption creates an expansive picture of a political and newspaper scandal with a cast of 13 enacting over 45 characters. Eddie Izzard nearly outdoes them by playing 23 characters herself in the greatest corruption play of them all—Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This one-person production of the Melancholy Dane is now at the Orpheum Theater after a hit run at the Greenwich House. Izzard, who identifies as gender-fluid and has recently taken on the female pronouns, is uniquely equipped to portrayed both the masculine and feminine sides of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. Dressed in a gender-neutral black jacket and hip-high boots (Tom Pier and Libby da Costa are listed as Costume Stylists) and wearing rogue, lipstick and mascara, Izzard embodies the male toxicity of the corrupt Danish court as well as the manly virtues of Hamlet’s chivalry and nobility. She also delivers a heartbreakingly fragile Ophelia and a maternal Gertrude. The highlight of Izzard’s performance is her eloquent use of her hands, creating a ballet of digits to depict the Bard’s conflict between intellect and passions. In one hilarious running gag, Izzard uses her hands as puppets to deliver Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s lines—reinforcing their status as playthings of the murderous king, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius. 

There are minor adjustments for clarity and speed in the adaptation by Mark Izzard, the star’s brother. Hamlet now refers to Polonius as a “tedious old git” and specific character names are employed to avoid confusion. Selina Cadell’s direction is clean and crisp. Tom Piper’s simple white box of a set becomes a canvas transformed by Tyler Elich’s colorful lighting, Eliza Thompson’s original music and Izzard’s multifaceted interpretation of Shakespeare’s greatest work.

Corruption ****
March 11—April 14. Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 W. 65th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 40 mins. including intermission. www.lct.org
Photography: T. Charles Erickson

 Seth Numrich, Dylan Baker and Saffron Burrows in Corruption.

Eddie Izzard Performing Hamlet ****
March 19—April 14. Orpheum Theatre, 126 Second Ave., NYC. Running time: Two hours and 20 mins. including intermission. ticketmaster.com.
Photography: Amanda Searle & Carol Rosegg

Eddie Izzard Performing Hamlet. Photo: Amanda Searle