How a Scandal that Seized Britain Made Its Way to a New York Stage

corruption lincoln center theater
How a UK Scandal Made it to a New York StageT. Charles Erickson
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It all began with a covert mission. “I secretly flew to London to have all of these private meetings,” J.T Rogers says. “People were awash with paranoia, anger, and fear, and I talked to perpetrators, victims, cops, journalists, and politicians. I spent a few weeks living in people's pockets—including a lot of the characters in the play.”

The play in question is Corruption, running through April 14 at Lincoln Center Theater, and Rogers—the Tony Award–winning playwright of Oslo—had some very good reasons to be so careful. Corruption is about the infamous News of the World phone-hacking scandal, which rocked the most powerful corners of Britain’s establishment and, after a messy unfurling that involved arrested editors, disgraced politicians, revelations about dead children, and grudge matches among the one percent, resulted in the shuttering of an almost 200-year-old London institution.

corruption lincoln center theater
Seth Numrich, Dylan Baker, and Saffron Burrows in playwright J.T. Rogers’s Corruption, at Lincoln Center Theater through April 14. T. Charles Erickson

“I was glad my trip was secret,” Rogers says. No one could know because even though the grip of [News owner] Rupert Murdoch’s empire seemed to be loosening—people were being hauled before committees, fines were being paid, and some players seemed like they were going to jail—people were really scared to talk about this in public.”

It's no wonder. The play, which is based on the book Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman, tells the story through the eyes of Watson, a British MP who was the target of Fleet Street tabloid ire before—in a delicious twist of fate—joining a parliamentary committee on media ethics. It lays out how the News of the World, under editors Andy Coulson (later a Downing Street communications official) and Rebekah Brooks (who, post-scandal, is currently the CEO of Murdoch’s News UK), illegally hacked the phones of royals, celebrities, and everyday people to drum up salacious, and sometimes untrue, stories to stay at the front of the newspaper scrum. The scandal went beyond the offices of the paper, however, and enveloped both Rupert Murdoch and his son James, in the controversy.

“It's the kind of story that I love,” says Rogers, who also works as the showrunner of the Max series Tokyo Vice. “It's this huge sweeping tale about politics, family, and people risking their lives and careers for what they believe.” It’s also one that he feels has resonance today in the country where it’s being performed. “Slowly, over the last few years, things have gotten so rotten politically and media-wise in our country,” he says. “It started to become not only a story that's really about us as well, but also about the origin of our post-truth moment.”

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J.T. Rogers and Bartlett Sher at the opening night of their previous collaboration, Oslo, at Lincoln Center Theater in 2017. Walter McBride - Getty Images

Barlett Sher, who directs the play, says, “J.T. is a profound and inquisitive artist. Any subject that he’s interested in usually lies somewhere underneath the surface of hundreds of questions we are already asking ourselves. When I heard that he was compelled by the Murdoch phone hacking scandal, I trusted and knew that we were going to begin a vital journey.

“I think Corruption is an important story to tell now because the intersection of capitalism and media and public discourse has never been more compromised... As artists we have to speak about it.”

corruption lincoln center
Sanjit De Silva and Toby Stephens in Corruption, written by J.T. Rogers. T Charles Erickson

Given the current state of the royal family, one might wonder whether today’s tabloid editors would wish to listen in on just a few private conversations. “I couldn’t give a rat’s bum about the royal family. I'm not interested,” Rogers says. “But what's fascinating to watch is how Harry is endangering a lot of British media with these lawsuits; clearly, he doesn't care about the money, he's trying to force judgments that will open criminal cases because he thinks that people have perjured themselves. That's why it's happening.”

So, could there be a future for Corruption closer to where its action played out? “Plans are afoot,” Rogers says. “British journalists have seen it and come up to me and said, you have no idea what this is going to hit like when it comes to London. I hope so. That’s what you want as a storyteller.”

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