However, what you’ll also find is a patrilineal line crushed by the weight of being a Packer. It wasn’t just business, it was personal, as one father famously pitted his two sons against each other in a battle for the throne while another son had to wait until his father’s deathbed confession to hear he was proud of him.
Enter playwright Tommy Murphy, who had been turning over the idea of a patriarchal story since about 2011. Then, when his “very loving, supportive, encouraging father” became very ill, it got him thinking about the nature of paternal love and the relationship between fathers and sons.
He landed on the Packers, interested in the shadow they cast over the landscape – culturally and in a business sense. “They’re huge in the impact they have had in shaping Australian society,” he says. “They have shaped what has entertained us, how we get our news and, obviously, they have been an influence over politics as well. But I think they’re huge as figures – they’re huge theatrically. They are big enough to fill our stage.”
Murphy was not alone in seeing the dramatic potential of the family. Nine, the TV network established by the Packer family, has been rolling out Packer-themed miniseries since Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War in 2012, followed by Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo and, finally, Power Games: The Packer-Murdoch War in 2013.
Determined not to let Nine “have the last word on the Packers”, Murphy kept chipping away at the idea but it wasn’t until the beginning of 2018, when he was commissioned by Belvoir Theatre, that he knuckled down in earnest.
He read widely and interviewed extensively, talking to many of the Packers’ high-ranking executives – some of whom asked not be named (Malcolm Turnbull, Kerry’s one-time lawyer, was not one of them, Murphy says) – and those who knew them personally, including Clyde’s only son, Francis.
“There is a mythology that people like to tell about these sizeable figures,” says Murphy, who is best known for his stage and screen adaptation of Holding the Man.
“Sometimes people like to inflate them and I found some people speak with an agenda about the Packers and you have to check your facts – a lot. That said, they also liked to tell myths about themselves and that’s certainly on the record as well.”
The result is Packer and Sons, a deep dive into the men of the Packer family and the complex emotions that drove them as each battled for ascendancy.
John Howard, who plays Sir Frank and the older Kerry, also spoke to those who knew the Packers and were keen to embellish the myth.
“They had a lot to say about them,” he says. “They were complex characters and I figured out it had a lot to do with how close to Sir Frank or Kerry they were. They told me a lot of unprintable stories and sometimes they toed the line about, you know, ‘Sir Frank was stern but could be amusing, was a man of his time’.”
Howard doubles the role of Kerry with Josh McConville, who plays the younger, wilder Kerry and the adult James. As such, each actor is playing a version of each other, not an impersonation of Kerry or James.
“I’m 5’11, I can’t get into [James’] size,” says McConville. “What I do have is empathy for him, which is hard to find in a billionaire.
“But the great thing with this story, is that it’s easy to find the empathy in there, you have to personalise it, and if it’s a father-son relationship it’s about love, so I’m approaching it from that angle, rather than trying to emulate him as a person.”
He sees James as a “very traumatised individual” with a “massive heart” who has “a lot of love to give”.
“He’s quite optimistic in that sense,” says McConville. “I guess the difference between him and Kerry is that he goes into deals easily, with love, rather than pessimism. But I think living in his father’s footsteps has impacted on his mental health quite considerably.”
Spanning 1955 to 2001, Packer and Sons covers the great shifts in power that wrenched the family apart – the ripping of power from Clyde to Kerry in 1972 – and James’ battle to break free from tradition. And while Sir Frank and Kerry provide the firepower, much of the tragedy lies with James and Clyde.
“We want to confound people’s presumed knowledge of all of these characters,” says Murphy. “And when we meet adult James in this play, we meet a visionary. We meet someone who is going to bring his family business into a new era. And he does that against enormous opposition from his father and his father’s lieutenants.”
And while James is best known these days for his personal life and mental health struggles, in Packer and Sons, Murphy sees him as “prophetic”.
“I was told by a very high-ranking person in the empire, that they remembered a moment when James Packer brought out a mobile telephone, very early on in the mid-’90s, and said, ‘This is the future. This is where media is going’,” says Murphy. “He was able to read those winds and then have the battle of trying to convince the old guard.”
Brandon McClelland, who plays Clyde, the original heir-in-waiting until a falling out with Sir Frank saw him cut off from the family, sees similarities between James and his uncle – both of them men at the mercy of their controlling fathers.
“He doesn’t have the same steel that Kerry had, that Frank had,” McLelland says of Clyde. “And I wonder then if there’s a little bit of Clyde in James and that’s something that’s explored a little bit in the play.
“James is probably still at that point where he could go one of two ways, and by showing how Kerry dealt with his circumstances and how Clyde dealt with his circumstances, we’re showing those two different paths [James could have taken].”
Unusually for a piece on stage in Sydney at the moment, Packers and Sons is exclusively all-male: actors, director, crew, playwright. Women are mentioned rarely, which Murphy says typifies the “pretty blistering chauvinism” of the time.
“It doesn’t endorse it but it wants to scrutinise it,” he says. “The play takes place in rooms where women were excluded. My interest there was an observation of how men express and perform their masculinity to each other, particularly in places where women have been excluded. In some ways, that might be a challenging thing to experience.”
Equally challenging for Murphy was coming to grips with big personalities who weren’t necessarily likeable. “Even the act of doing this has even challenged some of my beliefs as to what it is to be a playwright,” says Murphy. “I’ve always thought you have to create empathy but also characters who can be equally compelling when they are cunning, self-interested and brutal.
“And that’s not an exercise in loving your characters. It’s understanding their complexities and creating a sympathy with them that is complex but challenging.”
Did the cast found something to like in the Packers?
“Oh god yeah. But I like horned toads, as well,” says Howard, with a laugh. “If you go too close, they’ll kill you. But they’re fascinating, you can’t say they’re not fascinating.”
McConville agrees: “I think you have to [like them], if you’re going to play them, otherwise you’re just commenting on them. Kerry is one of the quickest, wittiest men. There’s something about him that’s extremely entertaining. James … the answer is yes.”
McClelland, meanwhile, admires Clyde’s ability to stand up to his father. “There comes a point where he finally decides, ‘I’m going to stand for something’,” he says. “Maybe it’s too late, maybe it’s the wrong thing to stand behind, but he makes that decision of, ‘No, I’m going to do this’, and I think there’s something quite admirable about that.”
Packer and Sons comes at a time when stories of wealthy families trapped in a hell of their own privilege couldn’t be hotter. From Succession (loosely based on the Murdochs) to The Crown (the Windsors) and the soon-to-be-completed Star Wars saga (stay with me – fathers, sons and one outsider battle for control of a dynasty), audiences and critics can’t get enough of familial dysfunction.
“There’s something in the zeitgeist about dynastic rule,” says Murphy. “I guess it’s a very good time to tell stories about privilege. It’s a very good time to tell stories about entitlement and to interrogate the people who have power. And also, I think, a very good time to tell stories about bullying men who have an entitlement to power.”
Howard agrees: “Since the Borgias [Renaissance-era powerbrokers] and people like that, it’s a fascination. It’s a Sydney fascination. And then there’s that whole thing that we plebs have of – the saying that goes, ‘Great families start in shirtsleeves and end in shirtsleeves’ – the three-generational thing, and the hope the whole thing will collapse totally. It’s kind of like a sport, watching the shenanigans.”
Now that he has spent years examining the Packers up close, would Murphy ever want to be one?
“That’s the unanswerable question of this play: would you want to be a Packer?” he says. “Well, you get all the wealth, you get all the responsibility, you also get Kerry Packer as your father. I think we are all probably greedy and envious and that might be one way people might enter that story.”
Packer and Sons is at Belvoir Street Theatre, Surry Hills, until December 22.
Louise is Editor of S and TV Liftout at The Sun-Herald