Friday, November 29, 2019

Packer & Sons

Packer & Sons by Tommy Murphy. Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, November 20 – December 22, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 26

Director – Eamon Flack; Set and Costume Designer – Romanie Harper; Lighting Designer – Nick Schlieper; Composer – Alan John; Sound Designer – David Bergman and Steve Francis; Fight and Movement Director – Nigel Poulton

Performed by
Nick Barlett                      John Gaden
Anthony Harkin                John Howard
Brandon McClelland        Josh McConville
Nate Sammut
/ Byron Wolffe

Tommy Murphy and Belvoir “gratefully acknowledge that aspects of this play are inspired by the books of Paul Barry, The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer, Rich Kids, and Who wants to be a Billionaire?

Murphy opens his Playwright’s Note quoting James Packer – the grandson of media mogul Frank Packer, and son of the even more media mogul Kerry Packer – saying “James Packer believes you want to be him.  ‘I recognise that the vast majority of people would swap places with me and I wouldn't swap places with – with anyone’ .”

After Josh McConville's powerful performance of James' mental anguish, in the after-show meet-the-cast (and author) session, Belvoir artistic associate Tom Wright put the question I already had in mind: What sympathy should we feel for the tears of a billionaire?

The further question as I saw it is: Should I see Murphy's play as no more significant than the 1980s American tv soap Dynasty; or should I upgrade it to compare with Shakespeare's study of the father and son kings Henry IV and Henry V?  In the discussion on the night, this similarity was raised.

But first, should I encourage you to see Packer & Sons?

For its theatrical quality, absolutely yes. 

It's true that I found the first hour, following the young Kerry (also played by McConville) and his brother Clyde (Brandon McClelland) rather less emotionally engaging than the second half, which followed the relationship between James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch (Nick Bartlett) in the One.Tel venture, and leading to James' mental breakdown.

This, I think, is in the writing which has perhaps kept too strictly to the information available to Murphy.  These families are not fictional as in Dynasty, nor in the distant past as the kings were for Shakespeare.  For Murphy there are matters of legal clearances when dealing with such current dominating global families, the Packers and the Murdochs.

The key to the success of the play on stage is the device of using the special skills of the actor John Howard as a throughline – first as the older Frank Packer and then as the older Kerry Packer, with McConville switching from  the younger Kerry to his son James.  The autocratic strength of Howard's interpretations, especially for the Kerry Packer role, are a wonder to experience.

His treatment of the young boy James (Nate Sammut on this occasion) in the learning-to-play-cricket scene was particularly awful.  James can do nothing right and is called a 'wuss' – later repeated at the time of the failure of Lachlan and James' attempt to make One.Tel succeed.  Their crooked partner Jodee Rich  (Anthony Harkin) has to go, bawls Kerry at James.  “You’re a wuss!”

The stylisation of the design which can make near-death scenes and wildly drunken vomiting seem funny – at least until James' final breakdown in contrast – works very well.  It's a risk well taken, by Murphy in the writing and by Eamon Flack in his directing.

So certainly see Packer & Sons, and then take on the questions it raises.

Of course it has much more to offer than the sentimentality of a tv soap.  But what does it not offer?

Murphy makes it clear in his Note that he, like Paul Barry, has concentrated on the father/son relationships rather than wider considerations.

How does it come about, as one description of Who wants to be a Billionaire mentions, that James Packer, by 2009 and the GFC, became “Australia’s richest man [who now] was $4 billion poorer and no longer on top of the heap.  He was smoking again, putting on weight and shutting himself off from friends.  Years earlier far smaller losses in One.Tel [where Murphy's play ends in 2001] had pushed him to the brink of a nervous breakdown and made him seek salvation in Scientology.”

The book promo ends “Can James survive this time?  Will he bounce back?  Or was his father right?”

In the play, James grits his teeth, now his father and his uncle are dead, as if he must soldier on.  Then blackout.

For me the applause for an excellent production is not enough.  Superficially there is a parallel with Shakespeare's Henries, but Tommy Murphy is not yet Australia's modern Shakespeare.  The key difference is that Henry V is about a young man with a dictatorial father in the top social power position – but Henry realises, after a period of irresponsibility, that he has to provide true leadership for his society, and for his own self-belief and integrity.  We may not, today, support monarchy – but Henry learns to become a worthy person, despite his father.  Kerry Packer continued his irresponsible behaviour, including whoring, far beyond youthful oats sowing.  Neither he nor his son James used their power for ethical social leadership.  Their money is their only measure of man.

I wonder, then, where Tommy Murphy and Eamon Flack stand.  Murphy writes about “allegations that Crown Resorts profited from improper activity by consular officials and allowed passage of organised crime and money laundering....This play is not the casino narrative”. Flack writes “The story, ultimately, is James Packer's, and he is still writing it himself.  I  can't help [but] admire  his decision to open up about the personal costs of running the business [from media mogul to gambling mogul] ....  With all my heart I can abhor the Crown monument at Barangaroo and wish James Packer well.”
(My square brackets)

Excuse me?  The massive destruction of the Barangaroo foreshore on Sydney Harbour by Packer's building of a giant gambling casino shows James Packer to be even worse than his father.  Murphy writes “This play is not the casino narrative.  That story is yet unwritten.”

Billionaire, irresponsible money-makers with no ethical principles provide us with the opposite of true leadership.  They twist people's worst proclivities to their own ends.  If they end up tying their mental states in knots, we may need to come to understand people like the Packers and their sons.  Tommy Murphy has certainly shown us the worst of patriarchal behaviour in practice.

But the real story that “is yet unwritten” – the one with no sympathy for these people (or for their friends the Murdochs who, for example, are virtually the only source of news in the whole of the state of Queensland) – that story should be written and acted out (and acted upon) right now.