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Packer & Sons

"We are telling the story of almost mythic people"

Getting the facts right is crucial to the writing of a play about men who have become legends, writes Tommy Murphy.

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Category: Theatre
Company: Belvoir
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Packer & Sons: The Whole Tooth

Date: 16 Nov 2019

“Do you think you can get it out in one piece?” I ask my dentist.

Dr Tristan very professionally explains the risks of tooth extraction.

“Because I’ve written a scene where a tooth is handed to someone,” I tell him. “I’d like to donate this to the production.”

“Oh. Gross.”

The dentist thinks it’s gross? He touches teeth all day.

“Yeah, but I wear gloves.”

It was a coincidence, as tech rehearsals began this week at Belvoir on Packer & Sons, that I had to have a back tooth yanked. It’ll save them making a prop and provide a bit of verisimilitude. Although, I’m not sure realism is quite the name of the game here.

The truth matters

Josh McConville, who plays young Kerry Packer, goes to a boxing match with Rupert Murdoch in the play. It really happened.

Kerry used the opportunity to attempt to sell his father’s newspaper to Rupert. There are several accounts of the pivotal moment, including an interview that Kerry gave. But Kerry’s telling had the ring of a good yarn.

I sought a clearer sense of the moment. I went to Facebook.

I was amazed to find I have friends who know quite a bit about boxing. They were ardent about the details of the setting. The dad of fellow playwright, Jordy Shea, is a walking almanac of matters pugilistic and, even better, he was at the Hordern Pavilion that very night for the boxing match when Kerry and Rupert were in the crowd.

Checking facts has been crucial for this show. We are telling the story of almost mythic people. The Packer themselves have sometimes perpetuated those myths, as per Kerry’s embellishments of the boxing moment.

I’ve also been shocked by the unsubstantiated gossip proffered by very credible commentators. One journalist even suggested to me that, as the Packers made a portion of their fortune from tabloid magazines, they’re fair game. It’s a shocking claim. Nobody is deserving of slander. I got into the habit of strenuous research.

The truth matters.

Punchy

“Could a boxer knock a molar out?” I ask Dr Tristan. Pretty unlikely, is his answer. “But you see that sort of thing in the movies,” he adds. Shit, not what I wanted to hear as he wadded my gum.

A dramatist is afforded some liberties. I omit moments so that consequential turning points sit together. I tease out the forces that drive these characters and emphasise the emotional fallouts that result.

I put words into their mouths. Many lines derive from quotes but are reshaped as spontaneous and impactful dramatic speech. I am confident it is all anchored in plausibility and true to their natures.

The audience is in on this.

There’s an implicit contract that we’re offering a deeply researched best guess of how the action played out in rooms where we were not granted access. The duty to draw the scenes accurately is weighed against my duty to deliver the audience a compelling night in the theatre.

I’ve been here before: balancing the ethics of telling true-life stories, especially of people either living or dead who hold cultural import. In all honesty, I didn’t need to fabulate very much at all with the Packers; they’re larger than life already.

Bending the tooth

“So, say, Denny Moyer already had a loose molar?” Dr Tristan is willing to buy that. Phew, because I’ve already promised this tooth to the production.

Special delivery

I cycle over to the theatre. I don’t usually like to invade a tech run. I’d much prefer to see the set and costumes unveiled as the audience will see them. But director Eamon Flack has invited me to take a peek and I have my special delivery.

I find the team fixing a lighting cue and I’m immediately struck by how much John Howard looks like Sir Frank Packer. Designer Romanie Harper has perfectly matched his spectacles and suit. They’ve changed his hair.

Standing in the theatre, even though the crew and all their equipment occupy it, I’m suddenly the first audience to the play. I’m tricked – or complicit in the trickery. Sir Frank has risen from the dead.

“I’ve just come to deliver the tooth,” I say.

I check, again, with Josh that he’s keen to use the real tooth. He’s pleased I’ve arrived just in time because he’s wearing the jacket that will have the tooth pre-set. I assure him that I sat it in bleach to disinfect it. I apologise that it’s not the neatest tooth. It had a root canal years back and a crown. It’s probably the most expensive prop in the show.

I ask John Howard if he’s okay with it. “Yeah. If you don’t need it”. Man, he looks like Frank. I really wasn’t expecting that.

Unpacking the Packers

The actors have made careful studies of the real people. Howard obsessed over a rare TV interview of Sir Frank. Nick Bartlett is certain he knows how Rupert Murdoch placed his tongue in thought as a younger man.
John Gaden notes how the older Rupert clasps his hands and how he emanates power via quietude.

Brandon McClelland zeros in on Clyde Packer’s dogged pride and his emotional collapse. Anthony Harkin channels Jodee Rich’s supreme confidence as an entrepreneur with unshakable conviction. These were clues to unlocking the characters but it has never been about impersonation.

Josh McConville had a qualm when he was cast in the lead double roles of young Kerry and James Packer: “I look nothing like the guy.”

Either of them, in fact.

It didn’t concern Eamon Flack. This is not a look-alike satire. It’s about conveying the essence of these figures and extracting the universal.

Importantly, it is also about confounding expectation. We want our audience to look at known figures via a new prism. We scrutinise these men but we don’t stand over them with moral superiority. That would be too easy. We’re displaying their actions and their desires, their flaws, and asking our audience to locate themselves in it. Josh does that masterfully as he embodies James’ struggle for meaning and love against the weight of expectation that might just crush him.

A tooth for a tooth

Now, a confession: I provided a real tooth for a theatrical incident but that incident is fake. Tony Mundine did not knock out Denny Moyer’s tooth, molar or otherwise. It did not land at Kerry’s feet in the packed Hordern Pavilion that evening in 1972. Kerry did not gift the tooth to his father as a talisman of his fate.

But Kerry did engineer a turning point in the narrative of the empire. He did make that bid to be king. He did land a deal with Rupert. He did prove his mettle to Sir Frank. And he did pursue the blood sport of keeping his hard-won throne to his dying days. While not all exchanges in this play are strictly, wholly true, they are truthful and I believe the distinction is allowed in the theatre.

Tommy Murphy’s Packer & Sons plays at Belvoir from November 16-December 22

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