Review: 1979

by Lynn on September 10, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Court House Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. and various other venues.

Written by Michael Healey
Directed by Eric Coates
Set, lighting, and projections by Steve Lucas
Costumes by Jennifer Goodman
Original music and sound by Keith Thomas
Cast: Marion Day
Sanjay Talwar
Kelly Wong

A bracing, perceptive play given a lively production.

The Story. It’s 1979 and Joe Clark has just been elected Prime Minister of Canada with a minority government. He desperately wants his budget to pass. It’s doubtful. He is guided by members of his caucus: an excitable John Crosby, his Finance Minister and Flora McDonald, a kind of mother-figure and respected MP, and Maureen McTeer Clark’s spunky, bold wife, and challenged by others: a smooth talking, condescending Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and a very young Stephen Harper who also shows his true colours.

The Production. It’s terrific. Bracing even. It’s beautifully directed by Eric Coates. It’s a multi-charactered play. We see politicians: Joe Clark, Trudeau, Flora McDonald, John Crosby, Stephen Harper, and Clark’s wife Maureen McTeer and they are all played by three actors.

Joe Clark is played by Sanjay Talwar who dresses in a neat, brown corduroy suit. Much is made of the suit depicting Clark as a bit of a hick or not quite smooth enough for the office of PM. Talwar creates a respectful, diplomatic portrait of Joe Clark. He listens thoughtfully and does not go in for the kill in an argument. It’s some of the best work I’ve seen Talwar do.

Kelly Wong plays a very dapper, arrogant confident Pierre Elliott Trudeau; a wildly excitable John Crosby; and a rather matronly Flora McDonald (in a prim suit and curly wig.)

Marion Day plays multiple roles as well, and she does it all beautifully. Again, it’s some of the best work I’ve seen her do. She plays Flora McDonald in that prim suit and curly wig and is almost motherly to Joe Clark; she plays Maureen McTeer who is whip smart and rather lusty with regards to her husband, and he goes for it too. And Marion Day plays a kind of uptight, frightening Stephen Harper. He stands stiffly in a suit, he shoulders seem up around his ears. The wig is perfect and stiff too. Harper’s arguments make one shudder and Marion Day brings all that out in her performance.

The costume changes are quick. Marion Day makes her entrance playing Flora McDonald. When McDonald has to make an appearance at the end of the show, Marion Day is not able to do the quick change so Kelly Wong does it. It works. We are more than willing to suspend our disbelief.

The name of each character who enters is projected on a black board at the back of the set along with an explanation of who they are. This is both funny and problematic. If there is other information it follows after that, perhaps with a pause for timing and effect. Some of the information is hilarious, perhaps introducing something we don’t know. Again that timing is beautifully placed.

But too often I think that Michael Healey is getting ahead of himself, being funny in the projections for funny’s sake. Then I think, is this a lecture or a play? I also think it would help if the projections stayed up a touch longer so we can actually read them properly. Too often we have to speed read to get it all.

Comment. Michael Healey has written political plays before such as: Plan B about a separate Quebec; Proud about how Stephen Harper governed, and Generous, again about governing. With those plays I just thought Healey was lobbing funny, perceptive observations in the air, being clever. With Proud at least, I didn’t even think it was a play, just characters being smarmy.

But 1979 is something else again. Healey has shown how decent Joe Clark was at the time, how dedicated he was to process and to doing right by the country. The play does a dandy job in showing the backstabbing, backroom maneuvering of politics, certainly in light of Joe Clark’s decency. He’s smart but he also is aware how he is being out-maneuvered by Pierre Elliott Trudeau but he won’t compromise his morals to do what he thinks is right for the country.

We see the selfishness and self-serving agenda of Harper and Trudeau and next to Clark the difference is dramatic. Rather than thinking Clark is a pushover and a bit of a fool, he comes off as a much deeper thinker, more nuanced. No wonder he’s known as a great statesman of the country. And of course, this being Michael Healey, the play is riotously, cleverly funny.

The play plays at various venues some performances at the Royal George and the Court House Theatre before finishing its run at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, instead of playing its whole run in one venue, which is usual. Why is the question.

Perhaps it’s Artistic Director Tim Carroll’s effort to appear innovative, which it isn’t. He’s done this sort of stuff when he ran a guerrilla theatre in England. There are shows that play at secret places that you find out about close to the playing time. It’s a tired trick that just makes me roll my eyes. Never mind, when one finds it, 1979 is a treat.

A co-production with the Shaw Festival and the Great Canadian Theatre Company, Ottawa.

Began: May 12, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 14, 2017.
Running Time: Approx. 85 minutes.

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