King and the king-maker

The Legend of King O’Malley, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, December 2

Rupert, Theatre Royal, Sydney, December 3

IT’S delicious to think that Federation-era politician King O’Malley and present-day media baron Rupert Murdoch could have met, and a shame I have no reason to think they did. They are endlessly fascinating and important characters in Australian history, one having his heyday in the first two decades of the 20th century and the other a dominant figure at century’s end.

How could they have met? Well, the newsworthy O’Malley – in at the birth of the Commonwealth Bank, proponent of Canberra as the nation’s capital and responsible for the American spelling of the Australian Labor Party – lived until he was 99 and died in Melbourne at the end of 1953; Murdoch had inherited his father’s newspaper business the year before. I can see it happening.

But despite the lovely symmetry of O’Malley being an American-turned-Australian and Murdoch an Australian-turned-American, and of both being over-powering personalities, it’s not a connection that would immediately spring to mind except for a happy coincidence of theatre programming.

In the indie corner is Don’t Look Away’s most welcome revival of The Legend of King O’Malley, written by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis in 1970. In the heavy-hitter’s corner is David Williamson’s bio-drama Rupert, which premiered at Melbourne Theatre Company last year and is now having a commercial season in Sydney. They are brilliant companion pieces.

King O’Malley is rough as guts and Rupert is a highly engineered piece of work, but the two productions share an irrepressible energy, the kind that brings to mind licking a finger and sticking it in a power socket. Both are biographical, kind of, but really they’re about politics. And power. Why these men want it, get it, keep it.

Both productions smash the imaginary fourth wall to talk directly to their audiences and have the swaggering, hyper-charged physicality of vaudeville. It’s a style that cuts the crap and doesn’t mind taking a strong, challenging position. King O’Malley feels bracingly immediate in its less-than-flattering depiction of political manoeuvring; in Rupert there’s a remarkably vivid depiction of how amped-up editors and journalists speak and behave. It’s a, shall we say, punchy mode that seemed to stun many in the audience of the matinee I attended, and I mean that literally. At times the shock was palpable. (I laughed immoderately, but I am a long-time member of the profession. Memories, memories.)

It was splendid to be reminded of King O’Malley’s fascinating career and of the play’s importance in the creation of the Australian theatrical new wave. It was equally riveting to see laid out the audacious, barnstorming career of Rupert Murdoch. You won’t feel at the end of either play that you know the men, but you will know what they did and the society in which they did it. You may even ponder your role in the political process: do you think for yourself, or let others do it for you?

You’ve still got time to see both these productions. Do it.

The Legend of King O’Malley ends December 13.

Rupert ends December 21.

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