REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★
The ‘Packer’ name is one of the most famous in Australia, with generations of the family have amassed a fortune in media and gambling assets over almost a century. It was James Packer, the son of Kerry and Roslyn Packer, who inherited control of the family’s business empire when his father died in 2005.
But despite being the beneficiary of a multi-billion-dollar fortune and enjoying the lifestyle it affords, James Packer has gone public in recent times with his mental health issues. Last year, he resigned from all of the Australian company boards on which he sat, in order to concentrate on treatment for his illness.
James Packer’s is a story that reminds us that, regardless of wealth and power, physical and mental health is never guaranteed. A closer look at the men who have led the Packer empire since its earliest days also provokes questions about what it takes to achieve the perceived highest levels of success in business; what toll a relentless drive to make one’s own mark can have on familial relationships; and what remains at the end of the day.
Taking inspiration from books by Paul Barry, Australian playwright Tommy Murphy (who wrote Holding the Man and, more recently, Mark Colvin’s Kidney) has penned Packer & Sons, which fixes its focus on three generations of Packer men – Sir Frank, Kerry and his brother Clyde, and James. It begins with a brief recount of the day in 1990 when Kerry suffered a heart attack while playing polo in Sydney and was clinically dead for more than six minutes. It’s an impactful point at which to begin because, as we watch James (played by Josh McConville) frantically organise Kerry’s transportation to hospital, it’s quickly reinforced to us that this isn’t just like any other family emergency. This family has extraordinary tools at its disposal (a private helicopter is dispatched to the polo field at lightning speed to transfer Kerry to the hospital) and the matter of the extent of communication of the events to media becomes exigent. Because at the centre of it all is media tycoon Kerry Packer, one of the most powerful men in Australia.
The piece then takes us back to the 1950s, when television arrived in Australia. Sir Frank (John Howard) launches a television station, which will ultimately become the Nine Network. His eldest son, Clyde (Brandon McClelland), and younger son, Kerry (McConville), are both working in the family business. Clyde is portrayed as reluctantly committed to his father’s media endeavours (despite his real desire to study at Cambridge) and is the natural heir, while Kerry has substantial gambling debts and is referred to by Sir Frank as “dumb-dumb”. Later, a dispute over an interview with Bob Hawke (then-President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions) causes an enormous rift between Sir Frank and Clyde, which sees the latter resign from the family businesses. When Sir Frank dies in 1974, it is Kerry who inherits control of the empire.
The text then takes us forward again in time to the 1990s, paying particular attention to the Packers’ business activities following the arrival of the Internet and, specifically, James’s backing of One.Tel. James is establishing the path he sees will take the family business through the next era and facilitate diversification. On stage, we see James strongly encouraged by One.Tel co-founder Jodee Rich (Anthony Harkin) and, by stark contrast, we see James constantly cut down, questioned and disparaged by his father, in interactions resembling earlier scenes telling the story of young Kerry and Sir Frank. Like father, like son.
Murphy’s eloquent text fixes its gaze on these complex family relationships at the outset and that gaze never shifts. There are no women in the world Murphy is examining, given the story there is to tell about the impact of masculinity here on other men. A vivid picture is painted of men under colossal pressure to do better than those who came before. In his ‘Playwright’s Note’, Murphy includes a quote from Kerry Packer that reads, “There’s only one way I know how to manage people: through fear.” That’s on full display here. More than that, though, there’s a lot of emotional violence to which we become witness.
Director Eamon Flack has wonderfully staged the play in Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre. The pace is right and those moments in which he moves time forward several decades have been carefully crafted. Romanie Harper’s understated set is highly functional and the costumes (largely suits) help to distinguish time and place, while Alan John’s music aptly underscores scene transitions.
Six adult actors take on a number of roles (two child actors, Nate Sammut and Byron Wolffe, share the roles of Boy James and Boy Kerry). Double casting isn’t merely economical but works to drive home the intergenerational nature of emotional failure and, in the case of actors not portraying Packers, to emphasise the homogeneity of the players in this privileged world.
Stage and screen stalwart Howard is excellent as Sir Frank Packer and the older Kerry Packer, as hard-nosed, aggressive and ominous men, each of whom shows little confidence in their respective sons’ ability to get the job done. His delivery of lines also provides some moments of black comedy, which tend to result from the unfiltered speech of the elder Packers.
McConville plays a young Kerry Packer, but it’s his performance as James Packer that impresses most. His version of James is sympathetic; it’s a man with his own insights into a changing world but stifled in his efforts to execute change by a father ceaselessly critical of each move. In McConville’s humanising portrayal, we see a man who is reduced by the self-doubt that has been borne from that criticism. It’s a glimpse into frailty we’re not used to associating with the elite.
McClelland always turns in a strong performance on our stages, and it’s certainly the case here, where he takes on Clyde Packer; Nick Bartlett is convincing as a ‘cool-as-a-cucumber’ Lachlan Murdoch; and John Gaden lends significant support as a number of characters, including media maestro Nick Falloon. Rounding out the cast, Harkin gives us a portrayal of Rich as the disrupter who eventually finds his loyalty will go unreciprocated.
Packer & Sons is a terrific play that provides some insight into a world most of us know little – or nothing – about, and Murphy succeeds in revealing lives that few of us would wish to inhabit.
Photo credit: Brett Boardman
PACKER & SONS – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 22 December 2019
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444