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Corruption

Fascinating though dense dramatization of the true story of the News of the World hacking scandal in Great Britain.

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Sanjit De Silva as Martin Hickman and Toby Stephens as Tom Watson in a scene from J.T. Rogers’ “Corruption” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Playwright J.T. Rogers (Oslo, 2017 Tony Award for Best Play) specializes in dramatizing the backstories to true scandals of which the real details behind the facts never made the news. His latest play, Corruption at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is based on the book Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman, the story of the widespread hacking scandal by the News of the World in Britain, written by two of the main characters involved in these events.

While Corruption is fascinating in its evil details and frightening in its all-inclusiveness (no one was exempt neither government ministers, the metropolitan police, the royal family, celebrities or the general public), it is also extremely dense in its characters, has too many scenes, and is very difficult to wrap your head around all of the facts. Bartlett Sher’s production keeps the 46 characters played by 13 actors distinct but his staging is somewhat hampered by the Newhouse’s round configuration and Michael Yeargan’s unit set which has to stand in for a great many places in and around London.

Seth Numrich as James Murdoch, Dylan Baker as Tom Crone and Saffron Burrows as Rebekah Brooks  in a scene from J. T. Rogers’ “Corruption” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

Rogers may not have wanted to leave anything out but his weighty docudrama might have been better served in a film version with accurate sets and recognizable stars in more of the many roles. The cast led by British stage and screen stars Toby Stephens, Saffron Burrows and Michael Siberry is excellent in their way but cool and reserved as English acting is often described.

The story begins during the summer of 2009 with the villains at the celebrity wedding of Rebekah Brooks (Burrows), former editor of The News of the World and current editor of The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s favorite tabloid editor. The guest list also includes Murdoch’s son James (Seth Numrich), the newly installed head of News Corp for all of the United Kingdom who informs Rebekah that she is now the new Chief Executive Officer of all of News International. At the wedding she warns Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown (Anthony Cochrane) that she is planning on going after Tom Watson (Stephens), the MP for West Bromwich East, who has been Brown’s hatchet man in Parliament. Unable to deal with the harassment of his family, Watson steps down from being party whip and instead is given a seat on the Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee, headed by MP John Whittingdale (Siberry).

Anthony Cochrane as Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Toby Stephens as Tom Watson in a scene from J.T. Rogers’ “Corruption” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

His wife Siobhan when informed predicts it has to be the most boring assignment in British government. However, five weeks later it is revealed that two years before News International paid out a million pounds to the president of UK’s professional football’s association Gordon Taylor for having been hacking his phones and electronics, one of 3,000 people known to have been hacked in files taken from electronics thief Glenn Mulcaire. This was under the stewardship of Rebekah Brooks. In the meantime, the harassment of Watson’s family is breaking up his marriage.

And the committee with Watson as their star prosecutor goes after News International and Brooks in particular to find out what really happened while News International attempts to purchase BSkyB, the largest digital pay television company in Britain. Ownership would make Murdoch’s corporation the largest media company in the UK. Under Watson’s investigations, he finds out that News of the World actually hacked into 11,000 people’s phones and for some reason the Metropolitan Police who have the evidence have done nothing to investigate. Could it be that News International has enough to blackmail them into silence but why are the newspapers other than The Independent and The Manchester Guardian not reporting the committee’s findings?

Saffron Burrows as Rebekah Brooks (far right) and cast in a scene from J.T. Rogers’ “Corruption” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

Watson is aided in his investigations by Martin Hickman (Sanjit De Silva), star reporter for The Independent, Nick Davies (T. Ryder Smith), star reporter for the Manchester Guardian, Charlotte Harris (Sepideh Moafi), lawyer for Gordon Taylor and others who were hacked, tycoon Max Mosely (Siberry), and Chris Bryant (K. Todd Friedman), an MP who can’t stand Watson but believes in what he is doing, while Murdoch’s lawyer Tom Crone (Dylan Baker) continues to warn both Brooks and James Murdoch that they must cover their tracks.

While the cast is completely believable, in the English manner they are often cool and unemotional. Stephens’ efficient and angry Watson and Burrows’ arrogant and entitled Brooks may be exactly like their real life counterparts, but the fact they never change throughout this long play is very untheatrical. More interesting are Siberry as the sardonic millionaire Max Mosley and Baker’s wry and ironic lawyer Tom Crone. As Rebekah’s husband Charlie Brooks, John Behlmann is amusing in what is played as a comic role. As the two star reporters, De Silva and T. Ryder Smith are interestingly almost opposites in their demeanors. Seth Numrich is very suave as media tycoon James Murdoch. Watson’s wife Siobhan is given a very sympathetic performance by Robyn Kerr.

John Behlmann as Paul, Eleanor Handley as Karie and Toby Stephens as Tom Watson in a scene from J.T. Rogers’ “Corruption” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

Though unattractive, Yeargan’s unit set makes the many scened play transition easily from one episode to the next. The busy production has a great deal of documentary video news footage created by 59 Productions. Jennifer Moeller’s pitch perfect costumes exactly set the tone of this corporate and political thriller. The unobtrusive lighting by Donald Holder always directs attention where it needs to be. Justin Ellington’s sound design is most obvious in the news video footage as well and the many phones that ring.

While the play is somewhat difficult to follow with all of the data, characters and facts, Sher’s production of J.T. Rogers’ complex docudrama is fascinating if low-key in its concept.  A few more climaxes and high points might make the play more powerful. Like Rogers’ Oslo, this script may make a much more successful movie than stage play in this form. Nevertheless, Corruption is frightening in its warning of how far the media will go to sell its wares. What happens to all these people in the end is the most ironic of all.

Corruption (through April 14, 2024)

Lincoln Center Theater

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.lct.org

Running time: two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (969 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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