The Packer family have been a prominent name in the Australian media industry since the 1930s. They founded some of Australia’s leading media institutions across print and television and are well-known for building a national empire and amassing phenomenal wealth. Packer & Sons works to see past the privilege of the Packer name to look at the abuse, cruelty, and toxic masculinity that shaped the relationships between fathers and sons.
Tommy Murphy’s script was commissioned by Belvoir on receipt of the David Williamson Prize for Excellence in Writing for Australian Theatre granted to Belvoir for Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife. It’s ironic and worth noting that this production with an entirely white production crew and a cast of exclusively white cis-men was given its opportunity off the back of the success of an Indigenous woman’s work at rewriting a white colonial narrative. Murphy’s script falls in line behind a long list of Nine Network produced documentaries and mini series tracing the Packer family and their business successes starting in 2006 with The Big Fella: the Extraordinary Life of Kerry Packer and continuing with Paper Giants: the Birth of Cleo (2011), Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (2012), Power Games: the Packer-Murdoch Story (2013), and Paper Giants: Magazine Wars (2013).
But, while Murphy’s script does include some of the inner workings of the Packers’ media dealings, most especially focusing on the collapse of One.Tel and James Packer’s (Josh McConville) subsequent resignation, this production attempts to capture the abusive dynamics of control handed down from father to son in the Packer dynasty. It’s a subtle critique made in the style of merely presenting the problematic behaviour for the audience to, presumably, come to their own scornful conclusions. However, in a wider context where the brutality of the Packer family is well documented, particularly Kerry’s (John Howard) in the long list of mini series representing his treatment of employees and rivals, the presentation of this well-rumoured behaviour is too subtle of a critic, as realised in the audience’s laughter at Kerry’s brutishness or quickness to anger. The impact of the toxic masculinity of the Packers is lost on an audience used to viewing this as par for the course in powerful families generally but more specifically in this familiar Australian family.
Another element of Packer & Sons meant to differentiate the story is the depiction of moments in which the men go through a personal transformation: they begin as normal feeling humans and must shed this compassion to fulfil their destiny as a tyrant. For Kerry (McConville), this moment comes in his hospital room after a near-fatal car collision. Here, the audience is encouraged to recognise his fear and provide the sympathy his brother Clyde (Brandon McClelland) and father Frank (Howard) are refusing to give him. However, this scene glosses over the fact that three people did die in that car crash for which Kerry is never reprimanded. It’s a common template of white male privilege that the people these men harm become points of interest in their journeys to self-discovery. It happened again in October when the son of a prominent barrister and his friends avoided jail time for brutally assaulting two men where the incident is framed as part of the assailants’ “struggle”. It’s difficult to champion a production’s critique of toxic masculinity when it employs the same techniques of the patriarchy that keep men like the Packers in power and unaccountable for their violence.
Eamon Flack’s direction is incredibly smooth, recreating the distinct mannerisms of the Packer men including Kerry’s deadly stare and James’s goofy wet laugh. There is a strong sense of physicality captured most in the actors’ transformations as the characters age or the fathers regenerate as their sons. The classical conception of associating masculinity and success with virility are maintained and even, interestingly, the old association between physical size and success forms an undertone. Frank and Kerry were fat men at the height of their power and this is displayed as a sign of their insatiable ambition and unbounded power much like the attitudes of kings. Flack hints to this connection in the opening image of Kerry perched upon a horse, surrounded by his sons and associates, during a polo match in a facsimile of a royal portrait from the Renaissance era: the ultimate symbol of power and opulence. Combined with the grandiose soundscape composed by Alan John and designed by David Bergman and Steve Francis, which amplifies this glorious example of empire, it’s clear this production purports the Packers as admirable.
For balance, Flack and Murphy off-set the Packers’ royalty status with their Australian larrikinism: eating pies, spitting, swearing, and recounting the family mythology of having started with nothing, a bit of luck at the races. This conceit has always been used to soften the blow of the Packers’ greed and the inequity of their immense wealth. It perpetuates the myth of the Australian dream that capitalism rewards the hard-working and it preys on the average Australian’s belief in the fair-go mentality in order to distract from the stomach-turning displays of wealth and privilege.
With all of this in mind, the performances in Packer & Sons are superb. John Howard is domineering and bullish as Frank Packer and the ageing Kerry. He roars around the stage and only becomes more intimidating in his quiet moments. Josh McConville is a powerhouse playing the young Kerry learning how to be cut-throat and uncaring, as well as James, the final heir turned sacrificial lamb. His cool reserve coupled with a “snake in the grass” arrogance is very well done.
Other characters including the soft Clyde Packer (McClelland), pushed out of the family for his integrity, and Nick Bartlett as Rupert Murdoch’s son Lachlan who provide interesting counterpoints, evidence of a world outside of the Packer bubble. John Gaden as Rupert Murdoch is a compelling addition with a stolid demeanour and a wider international gaze.
Set and costume design from Romanie Harper is clean with a fine attention to detail as the production progresses through the decades. A large panelled glass wall operates as an allusion to a grand house with garden views, a city office building peering over the other buildings, or other recognisable but non-specific settings of grandeur.
In the final moments, when James has reached the end of his tether and his father alludes to a “well-deserved break”, a light centres on James alone, upset, and crying “I want” into the silence. It’s in this limp image, of a man whose demands are never-ending, so different from his regal father from the opening, that the production’s intent crystallises: sympathy for the last man standing, after everyone else has already been crushed, who will cry for him?
Packer & Sons plays on an audience’s ghoulish fascination with wealth and power and attempts to offer a relatable story of these corruptible influences without critiquing the structures or myths that perpetuate the glorification of monsters. Without critical or complex engagement with the current political, social, or theatrical context, this production is an out-of-touch and disappointing honouring of the heyday of Australia’s richest family.
Packer & Sons is running at Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre from November 20th – December 22nd