Stage Door Review 2019

1979

Jan 15, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Michael Healey, directed by Miles Potter

The 1979 Group, Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs, Toronto

January 10-27, 2019

Joe Clark: “We’ve earned a moral right to govern”

1979, Michael Healey’s play from 2017 about Joe Clark, may be his best satirical play about Canadian politics yet. Set on December 11, 1979 just before Clark would take his doomed budget before the House of Commons, Healey’s play is really a demonstration of how politics is contradictory to idealism. 

Those who have studied English historical drama have long noted how the earliest English history plays were modelled on English morality plays. John Bale’s King Johan (c.1560), for example, surrounds the title king with a mixture of historical characters doubling as allegorical characters like Sedition, Civil Order, Nobility, Dissimulation, Treason and Verity. Healey’s 1979 is very much like just such an allegorical/history play. Its structure is simple. Clark (Philip Riccio) remains in his Prime Minister’s office while a host characters (played by only two actors) enter for conversations to press Clark to take political action to save his government. The drama consists in Clark’s refusal to be swayed by any of these temptations. 

The other two actors in the play are known simply as Actor A and Actor B. Actor A (Christopher Hunt) plays John Crosbie, Pierre Trudeau, Flora MacDonald, and Jenni Byrne. Actor B (Jamie Konchak) plays Allan Lawrence, Flora MacDonald, Maureen McTeer, Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper. All three cast members were part of the play’s world premiere at Alberta Theatre Projects in 2017. Easy to note from looking over the cast list is that Healey has used doubling to heighten the theatricality of what is otherwise a static situation and has specified cross-gender doubling and even two actors playing the same role to turn the theatricality up a notch. 

Healey’s view is not that Joe Clark is a fool but that he is an honest man convinced that has a “moral right to govern” and that therefore no politicking is needed to shore up that right. Philip Riccio wonderfully conveys this view of Clark as a fundamentally decent human being, one whose decency is simply out of place in the nest of vipers that is Ottawa. He knows he’s no good at joking but makes jokes anyway even though he has to explain them afterwards. At these moments Riccio handily expresses Clark’s conflicting feelings of fun and frustration. 

With duplicitous characters like Trudeau and Mulroney, Riccio’s Clark tends to believe what they tell him. With the pro-Thatcherite page Harper, Clark can quickly detect a danger to democracy because it is so undisguised. Healey’s main accomplishment is to make us view this short-term prime minister as an embodiment of idealism which, even if mixed with naïveté, represents some sort of hope for humanity as opposed to the increasingly self-serving politics that follow him.

Both Christopher Hunt and Jamie Konchak are expert at keeping their many roles absolutely distinct. Hunt’s most memorable role is that of Pierre Trudeau, who has just announced he is about to retire from politics and has seemingly come to visit Clark to gloat over the poor drudge who still thinks the job of governing is worth doing, whereas Hunt’s Trudeau feyly suggests he has moved beyond all that mundanity.

While Jamie Konchak has a memorable appearance as Clark’s sexually revved up wife Maureen McTeer, Konchak has the most impact as the young Stephen Harper. Like numerous historical dramatists before him, Healey has bent the timeline a bit to allow Harper, who arrive in Ottawa in 1985, to meet Clark who left in 1980. As with the best historical dramatists Healey sets up this meeting to make a powerful point. We can easily see how the bluff and upright Clark is extremely different from the crafty and duplicitous Trudeau. But the contrast between Clark and Harper is one of fundamental beliefs about government. Konchak gives Harper an innocent enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher, who came to power in 1979, but Healey masterfully allows Harper to sing Thatcher’s raises so long that the darker side of his admiration shows through. Harper thinks government is about hegemony, just the opposite of Clark’s view of government as the embodiment of compassion and the guarantor of freedom. As Konchak speaks, seemingly rapt in a vision of splendour, it’s hard not to think of the Nazi youth’s beautiful but disturbing song in Cabaret, “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”. 

That, of course, is the other reason for introducing Harper – to bring the concerns of the play about 1979 to to the present day where the ideal of government as hegemony has taken over in numerous countries around the world.

Steve Lucas’s wood-panelled walls for the set easily evoke the neo-gothic architecture of the Ottawa parliament buildings. The centre wall is used as a screen for Scott Reid’s projections of supplementary text from Healey’s play. Sometimes these are merely the names of character who enter, events that are mentioned or statistical breakdowns of votes that are discussed. Rather too often, however, the projected words become a running commentary on the action to the extent that you can’t both watch the actors and the the text. At this point it is too much. Even though the text itself jokes twice about how we didn’t come to the theatre to read, the joke don’t excuse the fact that there really is too much to read. Healey should feel free to allow us to realize the ironies of the situations or to remember what happens afterwards. A more extensive history of this kind of information would be more helpfully found in the programme than projected while the players are acting.

That aspect of the production aside, director Miles Potter, who directed the world premiere, has given the show taut pacing and brought out a wide array of fine performances from the entire cast. Though the play premiered in Calgary, it was commissioned by the Shaw Festival at a time when then Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell was speaking of some modern playwrights as “neo-Shavians”. This term is particularly à propos for 1979 since, as in Shaw, the play moves forward not through action but through intellectual argument tempered wth humour. Healey has Clark argue his way against ever more contrary ideological opponents until Clark, when he presents the budget that now knows will fail, basically presents himself as he is, as a kind of sacrifice, to a hostile House. This is a fine, funny, thoughtful and though-provoking play that serves as a much-needed perspective on the dire politics of today even more than it presents the quandaries of 1979. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Philip Riccio as Joe Clark; Christopher Hunt as Pierre Trudeau (foreground) with Philip Riccio as Joe Clark (background). © 2019 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets, visit www.canadianstage.com.