BWW REVIEW: PACKER & SONS Delves Into The Generations Of Power And Toxicity Within One of Australia's Richest Families
Wednesday 20th November 2019, 7:30pm, Belvoir St Theatre
Tommy Murphy's new biographical play, PACKER & SONS, directed by Eamon Flack, dissects three generations and approximately half a century of the Packer Family men. Showing not only the determination and drive that built a media and gambling empire, but also the cross generational trauma that fueled the dynasty.
The family behind Australian Consolidated Press (ACP) and The Nine Network Australian (TCN) which in turn became Publishing And Broadcasting Limited (PBL) and now holds a significant share of Crown Resorts started their rise to media power with R.C. Packer's race track win with money found at a Tasmanian race track. PACKER & SONS tracks the family's path from R.C's son Sir Douglas Frank Hewson Packer (Frank), and his sons Robert Clyde Packer (Clyde) and Kerry Francis Bullimore Packer (Kerry) somewhere in the 1950's through to Kerry's son James Douglas Packer (James) in the early 21st century. The story of the business empire and also the power that the Packer's have held over the media, business and politics is well know for most so Murphy seeks to expose more of the underlying motivations of the men which appears to be primarily driven by fear of their fathers for each generation.
With a bold flash scene of the older Kerry (John Howard) atop a polo pony in October of 1990 and shortly after the aftermath of the heart attack that prompted him to donate funds to have defibrillators in every NSW ambulance, the story then reverts to one giant flashback to Kerry's (Josh McConville) wilder days of booze and gambling beyond his means sometime in the 1950's. He and his brother Clyde (Brandon McCelland) are terrified of their father Frank (John Howard) as the bullying and belittling that will seep through the generations plays out through to Kerry's treatment of his own son James (Josh McConville). The parallels between the events of the generations are highlighted as child Kerry and James (roles shared by Nate Sammut and Byron Wolffe) interact with their fathers and as each generation of young men try to convince their elders about embracing new technology, from television to digital media and possibly the Packer family's biggest failure, the investment in One.Tel and the dealings with its founder Jodee Rich (Antony Harkin). There is a fluid cycle of scenes from a 7 strong all male cast of performers that double roles across the generations.
Romanie Harper (set and costume design) presents a broad commercial linoleum floored space with a single brass drain and frosted glass paneled wall obscuring a rear corridor. Similarly sparse props position by the cast assist in transforming the space from executive offices to boat decks and luxurious apartments but essentially allow the performers to be the central focus of the piece. Some of the costume changes occur on stage, helping to reinforce that performers are playing multiple characters, often fathers and sons in the different generations. David Bergman and Steve Francis sound design gives cinematic mood between scenes from fanfares, ominous constant tones and foreboding tribal drums. Nick Schlieper's lighting holds secrets in its darkness and exposes scene changes while also adding variety with shadows through the frosted glass walls. Special mention must also go to Nigel Poulton's incredibly physical brutal fight scenes played out with conviction by Josh McConville for both generations.
Murphy exposes the toxic masculinity that runs through the power brokers of the family and the fact that Frank and Kerry ruled by fear and manipulation. He has contrasted this with his presentation of the Murdoch men, Rupert (Nick Bartlett and John Gaden) and Lachlan (Nick Bartlett), the other Australian media heavyweights. The old tradition of sons taking over the family business is reinforced with the lack of female characters, with the wives and mothers only mentioned in passing and seemingly have little to no influence on how their children are raised, which is quite possibly very real. While this is an interesting work, it feels like there is still fine-tuning opportunities as at times the uncertainty of text felt more like issues with familiarity rather than the character's reality of being uncertain with the situation that was playing out. It also feels like Murphy was potentially holding back on his assessment of the family, potentially trying to avoid lawsuits as characters portrayed are still very much alive and still wielding power and the requisite bank balance to inflict harm if they felt they were portrayed in an unflattering light.
As with the family that continues with James and to a less prominent extent that is not covered in the play, his sister Gretel, PACKER & SONS feels like a story that is not quite done yet but will still be of interest to those that like peeking into the lives of the rich and famous.
Photos: Brett Boardman