Finding Murdoch

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

16/06/2007 - 14/07/2007

Production Details

Written by Margot McRae
Directed by Geraldine Brophy

A story of two halves.

An intriguing world premiere kicks off at Downstage about the infamous ex-All Black Keith Murdoch and the woman who managed to hunt him down.

Finding Murdoch is ex-journalist Margot McRae’s account of the media storm and controversy that engulfed sporting legend Keith Murdoch when in 1972 he became the first and only All Black ever expelled from the team.

In a notorious late-night incident Murdoch punched a security guard in a Welsh bar just hours after scoring the All Blacks only try in their victory over Wales. Murdoch was sent home in disgrace from the tour by All Black management, reputedly under pressure from the rugby union.

Avoiding the media maelstrom laying in wait for him in NZ, Murdoch went into hiding, quitting his home and his sport and moving to the Australian outback where he has lived ever since.

In 1990 McRae, then working on the rugby series ‘Mud and Glory’, tracked Murdoch down in rural Queensland and was able to speak to Murdoch for 45 minutes.  “I tried to get as much information out of him as I could, which was like getting blood from a stone,” says McRae “But he was absolutely affable and pleasant. He was very happy in himself, it seemed to me.”

“Meeting Murdoch had quite an effect on me”, McRae adds “It was the need to tell his story and to also express my increasing disillusionment with the direction of television that propelled me to write the play. I wanted to describe the process of getting a story and the toll it can take on people.”

Finding Murdoch is the witty, moving and topical account of McRae’s search for the All Black legend, how far the media will go to get a story and how the real people behind the photos and the stories are affected.

Performance Times
Monday – Thursday 6.30pm
Friday & Saturday 8pm
$20 shows Fri 15 June & Tue 19 June
Matinees Sat 30 Jun 2pm, 7, 14 Jul 2pm

FREE Post Show Talkback
Monday 18 June

Danielle Mason  
Paul McLaughlin
Simon Vincent
Alistair Browning
Jed Brophy
Sean Allan
Julian Wilson
Steven Ray 

Brian King - set designer
Lisa Maule - lighting designer
Zoe Fox - costume designer
Stephen Gallagher - sound designer

Theatre ,

1 hr 50 mins, incl. interval

Theatre was the winner on the day

Review by Lynn Freeman 21st Jun 2007

"It’s not a story, it’s my life!"

A plea from the heart from "the tragic long lost son of New Zealand rugby", Keith Murdoch, to the journalist who scored the story the media was drooling over, by tracking him down in Queensland in the early 1990.

That journalist was Margot McRae, young, ambitious yet principled and to an extent idealistic. TV was entering its new age, with TV3 arriving as competition and ratings ruled and with reality TV taking over from ‘hard’ news and current affairs.  The writer tries her hand at satire to tell this part of the story and it doesn’t really come off, too soft and stereotypical.

But the real human interest story is gripping, that of Murdoch and the journalist (in the play named Jane to remind us, as McRae says in the programme, that this is a fictionalised account). It’s almost a romance, with these two striking up an unlikely rapport given Murdoch’s loathing of the media who he saw as the real villains in his ‘downfall’ in Wales in 1972.

The Murdoch Jane discovers is a quiet, reflective man who’s alone by choice but not seemingly lonely.  He is scarred by what happened and for all his bad temper and bad behaviour – and let’s not pretend that punching someone is appalling even (maybe especially) if you’re an All Black – his former team members still held him in high regard. 

Paul McLaughlin has bulked up to play the hefty and imposing Murdoch whom he plays with power and understated poignancy.   Danielle Mason invests Jane with an appealing mix of ambition and humanity, and Steven Ray perfectly captures the pathos of Todd, the disliked coach who decides to send Murdoch back to New Zealand in disgrace.

It’s a brand spanking new New Zealand work and there are some issues with the script, the first half is a bit wordy and as mentioned before the satire needs sharpening up, but it’s great to see such a quintessential New Zealand story on stage. Definitely a winner.


Margot McRae June 26th, 2007

In answer to your query John - Keith Murdoch chatted to me in a Queensland pub in 1990, and also agreed to allow a camera crew to film us talking. The next day I went with the crew to the banana farm where he worked to try to get more shots of him. However when he heard me calling to him he ran away. Regret over this incident is at the heart of my play.

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Great ensemble let down by script

Review by Helen Sims 19th Jun 2007

I have always  bemoaned the fact that New Zealand’s myths of national identity are bound up to a large extent with rugby – a game that (to my mind) lacks intelligence and subtlety. Finding Murdoch, a play based around the media pursuit of a rugby legend, Keith Murdoch, suffers from the same failings. The play’s central character is in fact not Murdoch, but “Jane”, an ambitious young female journalist struggling against the old boys club to track the big man down in order to get her big break in TV production. Sounds clichéd? It is. My main gripe about the show is, that despite being a solid production, Downstage has once again this year (see my musings on The Graduate) brought us a play that, although slick, just seems largely pointless as a piece of theatre.

It is not that the play is not trying to make a point. In fact, its message is repetitively made abundantly clear. We are repeatedly told that rugby is “more than a game”, the media is bad and only interested in sensationalism and profits, and that women, sentimental creatures that we are, will always struggle to understand the imperatives driving sportsmen and journalists alike and gain access to its privileged circles. The play is Margot McRae’s first, based on her own personal experience of finding Murdoch, which she has “fictionalised … to bring out the drama, pathos and humour of the events and themes I wanted to present.” She acknowledges that the reality of her actual search was “often mundane and boring”. Perhaps this is why I felt that this was a rather limited story that had been stretched to encompass the indictments that McRae wants to make. Characters in the play repeatedly ask the question “How does it feel?” but just as they draw near a moment of emotional intensity the play pulls back, with one of the characters (usually Jane) spelling out the wider lesson of the scene explicitly for us. If someone had gone through the script and stripped it of its more overt moralising and teaching in order to leave us to draw our own conclusions, I have a feeling that this would have been a far more interesting play to watch.

This adds up to a lack of theatricality that is compounded by the staging and directorial choices. Characters seem to fail to interact – they are often standing unnaturally far apart. This produces a lack of engagement, and if the characters on stage aren’t engaging, then one wonders how the audience is supposed to. Geraldine Brophy’s Director’s Note states that the word that leapt out at her was “Gladiatorial” when reading the play – an excellent idea and she has definitely achieved a sense of stand off – if only the cast weren’t standing on opposite sides of the stage, more tension and drama could have been achieved.

Despite this, the performances are very good as a whole. To pick up on the rugby puns that seem to pervade the production, Steven Ray, Simon Vincent, Alastair Browning, Sean Allen and Jed Brophy form a ‘tight five’ as the supporting characters. They combine in lovely and frequently comedic moments of Greek theatre style chorus work. All of the men were suitably buoyant and bastardly at times. Individually, Browning’s TV production company boss produced several audible groans from me over his sleaziness. Paul McLaughlin is intense and enigmatic as Murdoch. He has few lines in the first half, but haunts the stage throughout. Danielle Mason does a suitably superficial job with Jane, as her character is as one-dimensional as the name would suggest. This is a shame given that the character’s search is clearly meant to be based on the writer’s own experiences – she appears to have failed to interrogate her responses beyond indignance and open mouthed gaping. Her delivery to the audience seemed particularly forced, and broke the flow of action. It could also have benefited from the above mentioned cuts.

Most impressive about the production are its design elements. Here the calibre is extremely high. Brian King has made an excellent use of the space at Downstage, entirely changing the ground level seating to reflect more of a rugby match atmosphere. The set is sparse but effective, able to be efficiently changed around by the actors, and an upper tier of the stage is used well. This is matched by Lisa Maule’s lighting design – which perfectly recreates a stadium (or gladiatorial arena) atmosphere – although if you are sitting on the ground level then it takes a while to get used to being included in the flood lighting. This is juxtaposed with dim lighting used to evoke ‘vintage’ footage of Murdoch and the All Blacks in the Seventies and the bloodbath red lighting of the climactic match play. The costumes appear accurate, although it might have been fun to put Jane in more of an early nineties power suit. Stephen Gallagher’s sound scape is, as usual, sublime and evocative, culminating in a deafening rushing noise that closes the play.

So overall, I wasn’t a fan and Finding Murdoch wasn’t a ‘winner on the day’ with me. Perhaps it is because I have recently seen productions that capture more emotional intensity (Blackbird) on what I’m sure is a far smaller budget. A great ensemble cast, excellent technical design but Finding Murdoch is ultimately let down by its script, which just seemed to lack basic fundamental drama. For those who are rugby enthusiasts familiar with the Murdoch mystery, there may be more to enjoy, however, powerful, thought provoking theatre this is not. There are far more damning and clever vehicles for the same themes out there, particularly if an indictment of the imperatives driving the modern media is what you are after.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


stephen gallagher June 21st, 2007 your name really 'Anonny'? Helen, thank you for your review!

Anonny June 20th, 2007

Thank you Helen for an honest, thoughtful and healthily critical review (Finding Murdoch) ; a very rare animal in this fawning cowardly town.

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A memorable play of paradoxes

Review by John Smythe 19th Jun 2007

My partner loved it and rugby is not her bag. But then it’s written by a woman about a woman’s desire to achieve and understand, and it’s directed by a woman, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Which isn’t to say rugby orientated blokes won’t like it too. Heading for the car (after the Monday 6.30 show) I bumped into the other Keith – Quinn of sportscasting fame – and asked him if he’d just been to Finding Murdoch. "Saw it on opening night," he said. "It’s terrific. You should go."

"Just did," said I. "What do you reckon Murdoch would think if he saw it?" We both frowned. Hard to say. That question sits at the heart of the play. Does it vindicate or exploit him? Open old sores or heal the wound? "He does come out of it well," said KQ. "He gets a good hearing." Agreed.

Finding Murdoch is the means by which journalist-turned-playwright Margot McRae uses the Keith Murdoch story to play one woman against a team of men, oestrogen against testosterone, hard work and tactics against contacts through mates, integrity against exploitation, the right to privacy against public exposure … In playing with these dichotomies, McRae mostly maintains a journalistic tone, finding dramatic structure in plot and theme rather than through depth and change of character. Her quest is to move beyond just knowing what happened to understanding why.

The facts are these: Back in the days before his namesake Rupert turned rugby union professional, classic ‘Southern man’ Keith Murdoch was an Otago then All Black prop. On the AB’s 1972 tour to Britain, he scored the only try in their win against Wales at Llanelli. Then, late that night, he thumped a Welsh security guard at their hotel and tour manager Ernie Todd turned what began as a reprimand into banishment.  

Except Keith Murdoch didn’t make it home. He diverted at Singapore to Australia, disappeared into the hinterland and fuelled a ‘mystery man’ myth, fanned by the very media he was at such pains to avoid. The whys behind these facts are now explored by McRae who, in 1990 as a journalist working on the Communicado TV series Mud and Glory, succeeded where blokes had failed, in tracking the elusive Murdoch down.

So it’s about much more than rugby. It’s about the repercussions of mindless childhood cruelty; about the strong silent Kiwi male who is a gentleman most of the time but can be provoked when he’s had a few and those sensitive buttons get pushed. It’s also about ‘image’ versus ‘truth’ and what happens when a woman journalist hunts down a legend – for her job and the glory of beating the blokes – only to find, in her rite of passage, a very human reality presenting her with a moral dilemma we can all relate to.

It’s a fictional account of course. In this 1990s brave new world of independent production houses competing for NZ On Air funds to make programmes for a radically restructured free-to-air commercial broadcasting industry, Communicado becomes Vision TV, Margot becomes Jane, her producer (Julie Christie?) becomes Geoff (or was his genesis the boss, the late Neil Roberts?). Only All Blacks Lin Colling and Ian Kirkpatrick retain their real names.

In Brian King’s wide open arena space, a blood red ground, adorned only by a red vinyl bar (of the pub variety) and stylised goal posts, makes the most of the Hannah Playhouse’s 1970s "brutalist" concrete and wooden beam architecture. And Lisa Maule’s lighting, with Stephen Gallagher’s soundscape, dynamically facilitates the transitions from 70s to 90s, NZ to Wales, outside to inside, realism to stylised presentation.

The characters are largely functional apart from Jane, Murdoch and Todd, and even they are not revealed as complex. Jane’s reality beyond the task at hand – which includes narrating as well as re-enacting the story – remains unexplored. Murdoch’s still waters cannot be said to run deep. Only Todd gets a life of sorts outside the tour, in that his cassette tapes home to his wife are a device by which his private views colour his public actions.

While there is plenty of active conflict between characters, the most profoundly revealed characters are the 70s and the 90s, and the contrast between them enriches the drama a lot.

Danielle Mason takes every opportunity to mark the key emotional and thought-provoking moments in Jane’s journey, slipping seamlessly from the now of narration to the now of pursuing her quest. Despite knowing so little about her, when the crunches come we cannot help but feel for her and share her dilemmas.

Paul McLaughlin’s slow reveal of the taciturn Murdoch is poetic in its circumspection. He too commands our empathy, not least through the tiny morsels of information we get about his past and his mum. That Mason and McLaughlin both excel in sharing a sense of what Jane and Keith are thinking and feeling is also a testament to McRae’s writing and Geraldine Brophy’s directing.

Brophy knows how to work an open thrust space and – with Jed Brophy (no relation) choreographing the stylised sequences including an extraordinarily effective ‘replay’ of the legendary match at Llanelli – the action moves at pace through the time frames and locations, from broad brush evocations to intense personal moments, like a side-stepping winger determined not to lose the ball and make it to the score line no matter what.

As an ensemble the whole team generates the ethos of 90s television production and 70s international rugby with a relaxed skill that belies the precision of their work. And most also get the opportunity to stamp memorable impressions of personal moments on the action.

While not quite at home in the role of Pete, an old school TV bloke, Steven Ray is finally moving as Ernie Todd. As Geoff, the Vision TV boss, Alistair Browning oozes the requisite blend of egalitarian idealism, human dispassion and sexual sleaze, and acquits himself well in his other roles.

Simon Vincent and Jed Brophy are a great double act as Ian Kirkpatrick (flanker & captain) and Lin Colling (halfback), joined on occasion by Sean Allen’s ‘Gazza’. All three offer humorous and heartfelt moments of insight into the quintessential Kiwi male psyche.

Geraldine Brophy and her teams, both on and off the field, have honoured the work of a promising new writer with a story to tell. And in the final maul we, the media-hungry public, are inextricably implicated. Does it matter, then, that we don’t know what actually happened in extra time? (He was ambushed by a camera crew, wasn’t he? Footage was shot and his story was included in Mud and Glory, was it not? Google doesn’t help me here – can anyone throw light on this?)

In throwing significant light on major turning points in the lives of a 70s All Black and a 90s TV journalist, while exemplifying the way TV in New Zealand changed forever, the Finding Murdoch teams have played out a memorable play of paradoxes.  


John Smythe June 20th, 2007

Quite right, thanks Ceri - and the others who emailed. Just goes to show the dangers of Googling for answers. Llanelli it now is.

Ceridwyn June 20th, 2007

John - I think the spelling you're looking for is Llanelli - though good on you for the phonetics.

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Highly charged

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 19th Jun 2007

That rugby is not only New Zealand’s national sport but for many a religion is a commonly held view.  So when an incident occurs such as the sending home in 1972 of Keith Murdoch from Great Britain after the All Blacks beat Wales it becomes a talking point in nearly every home around the country. 

That the media wanted to know what caused this expulsion so that they could "inform" the public of the facts is also not surprising.  Yet Murdoch was his own man and although shy and inarticulate he wasn’t dumb and wasn’t going to be owned by the media having no intention of telling his side of the story, ever. 

So instead of coming back to New Zealand he disappeared into the outback of Australia where he has remained ever since.  And so started a media frenzy to find him which supposedly has continued to this day.  Yet Rugby in New Zealand has moved on considerably since this incident 35 years ago and so it’s debatable if there is still much interest in the incident. 

But like a good rugby match it does have the potential for a good piece of theatre which writer Margot McRae realsied after trying to get an exclusive interview with the elusive Murdoch for the TV programme Mud and Glory

Based on facts and including actual people and recordings of the time, McRae has embellished the incident and her attempts to talk to Murdoch into an engrossing and very theatrical piece of theatre. 

On one of the most spartan sets seen at Downstage for a long time, designer Brian King has used the 1970s coliseum like design of the Hannah Playhouse to great effect to not only emulate a rugby pitch but a colossal amphitheatre to play out the search for the man behind the myth. Murdoch in a spotlight in the balcony above the stage creates a wonderful image of the man larger than life. 

But the play is also as much about the media and to what lengths they will go to capture an "exclusive" as it is about Murdoch.  And so while learning about the incident in the Angel Hotel, where Murdoch supposedly punched a security guard, coupled with the culture of the All Blacks back then and what it’s like wearing the black jersey, we have two reporters trying to find Murdoch. 

Young and up and coming reporter Jane (Danielle Mason), who is also the narrator, uses tactics to get her exclusive while the older style journalist Pete (Steven Ray), who was there at the game, uses his contacts.  After interviewing players of the time, notably Lin Colling (Jed Brophy) and Ian Kirkpatrick (Simon Vincent) it’s Jane who finally gets to meet Murdoch (Paul McLaughlin) and, though he re-lives both the game and the incident for her, stunningly portrayed in this production, he will go no further for her. 

So, while he’s reinforced to her that the myth about the man is not far from the truth she also finds another side to him that impacts on her quest for the exclusive interview.  Although the character development is not great in this play, the physiology and emotion of wearing the black jersey, and the thinking of an All Black back then as opposed to now – "emotionally constipated"  is how they described themselves – is well played out in Geraldine Brophy’s creatively structured and highly energised production. 

Through the second half especially there are some wonderful moments of highly charged theatre as the cast do the haka with the crowd at Cardiff Arms Park singing in the background.  And the acting is spot on throughout – McLaughlin’s Murdoch, although not having a lot to work with, brings an understanding and humanity to the man that has eluded everyone for so long making it seem criminal to continually keep hounding such a gentle giant.

We are left with the thought that not finding Murdoch maybe the best solution.  


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