Satire about Joe Clark’s political decline is full of wit and heart, and surprisingly sympathetic of Clark
|Toronto Star 11 Jan 2019 at 12:05|
By Michael Healey, directed by Miles Potter. Until Jan. 27 at the Berkeley St. Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. canadianstage.com or 416-368-3110
Doofus from out West. Progressive Conservative nobody. Philosophic unicorn death-baiter.
You may be surprised to learn that the play by Michael Healey that includes these fragrant descriptors of former prime minister Joe Clark is actually pro-Clark. Healey sympathetically portrays Clark (Philip Riccio) as deeply principled and therefore doomed to failure, and presents the hot second Clark spent as PM as a turning point toward the present uncivil, name-calling, post-truth times.
The play is a satire packed full of research and strong opinion, and also a lot of wit and heart. It’s a deep dive into recent Canadian political history, but I stand as living proof (having moved to this country six years ago) that you don’t have to have lived through the turbulent period it represents or be previously acquainted with all the figures in it to find it provocative, educational and funny.
1979 continues Healey’s trajectory from plays about politics (Plan B, Generous) to plays that portray actual politicians. The previous of these, Proud, became a talking point when Tarragon Theatre declined to produce it in 2012; as Healey saw it, because the theatre was afraid that its very thinly veiled portrait of Stephen Harper might invite legal action from the then-PM. Healey and director Miles Potter went on to produce Proud themselves.
They are also the producers of 1979 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, along with Marcie Januska. The play premiered in 2017 in two near-simultaneous stagings: one at Alberta Theatre Projects directed by Potter; the other a co-production between Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company and the Shaw Festival, directed by Eric Coates.
This Toronto premiere is a restaging of the Alberta production featuring the same cast, who are superb. Calgary-based actors Christopher Hunt and Jamie Konchak rise to the showy task of playing multiple characters, sometimes crossing gender and, in one amusing instance, portraying the same person at different times.
The anchor of the show is Riccio’s Clark, resplendent in three-piece brown corduroy (designed by Jennifer Lee Arsenault) against Steve Lucas’s wood-on-wood set. Riccio’s hardly ever offstage for 80 minutes and through understated but profound character work draws the audience into Clark’s psyche and his dilemma.
It’s the late afternoon of Dec. 13, 1979 and later that evening there will be a parliamentary vote on the controversial austerity budget spearheaded by Clark and John Crosbie (Hunt, spewing Newfoundland-accented vulgarities), which is almost certain to lose and bring down Clark’s government with it.
There are all sorts of things Clark could do to forestall the vote or bring people over to his side, suggested by a number of friends and foes who come to visit, among them Allan Lawrence, Flora MacDonald, Brian Mulroney and Clark’s wife, Maureen McTeer. None of these encounters is more delicious than Clark’s faceoff with Pierre Elliott Trudeau (Hunt), who sails through the door with a chainsaw in hand, dancing to the Tragically Hip (sound design by Thomas Geddes).
In Healey’s writing and Hunt’s playing Trudeau is suavely arrogant to the point of being maddening, but he’s also a portrait of political success. He berates Clark for being disrespectful of power and preoccupied by courtesy; in Healey’s imagining it is during this meeting that Trudeau, who quit as Liberal leader after the 1979 election, figures out how to stage his return to politics.
Along with the role-swapping, another of the play’s notable theatrical features is the projection of text (designed by Scott Read and co-ordinated by Martin Nishikawa) that provides background and commentary on the action (“Trudeau hated the press. The feeling was increasingly mutual”). Some may find this geeky or cheating, but the projections were helpful to me in appreciating what was going on and frequently added to the entertainment value (“Oh God, more reading,” says one slide).
While essential to Healey’s deep exploration of the evolving values associated with conservatism, the late encounter with a young Margaret Thatcher-loving parliamentary assistant named Steve (who like Clark started his political career in Alberta, if you’re picking up my hints) is the only point when the otherwise breezily paced and well-structured play bogs down.
A final coda that moves forward in time offers damning commentary on lagging official recognition of Clark’s contribution and features some very touching playing by Riccio. Throughout, the actors’ capacity for physical, vocal and affective transformation, assisted by smart costume and wig design, is captivating.
The play’s final minutes also communicate Healey’s belief that Clark left a part of himself behind in the PMO, and that the country would be a better place if its more recent inhabitants acknowledged this. You have to wonder what Clark himself, and everyone else portrayed in the show who’s still with us, would make of it.