Brooke Johnson’s Trudeau Stories is a fun and often irreverent tale of the off-and-on friendship between the two members of an unlikely pairing, but fails to seize on its opportunity to say something substantial about one of Canada’s more divisive political leaders.
Based on the real-life relationship between Johnson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Trudeau Stories is Johnson’s retelling of their relationship, beginning with their first meeting and ending with her memories of his state funeral. There’s not much else to say plot-wise, as real life doesn’t follow a convenient plot pattern (though obviously some editing to fit it all into a 75-minute running time must have happened), but it should suffice to say that their association was neither romantic nor dramatic. This play seems to be more about Johnson than about Trudeau, but to explain why this is the case will require some more description of the show itself.
Johnson is both playwright and performer, but the style in which she performs the script is more of an energetic storytelling experience than a traditional play. We hear her point of view about the events in which she took part, with some limited musings about what was going on inside Trudeau’s head during their encounters. Johnson frequently moves about the minimal set (a rectangle of about 8 by 14 feet, whose terrazzo pattern evokes the floor of Trudeau’s Montreal home but also resembles Viewmaster discs; a wingback armchair; a small wicker box) and expertly uses small gestures to express her own state of mind at the time of whichever memory she’s relating. A particularly strong example comes at the beginning, when she first met Trudeau, who had already retired from politics at this time, at the National Theatre School’s 25th anniversary gala when she was a student; her borrowed shoes were 3½ sizes too big and so in performance Johnson steps on awkward tiptoe throughout the segment.
Gestures such as these (the most whimsical being her imitation of the sliding on icy sidewalks that she and Trudeau enjoyed), as well as Johnson’s versatility as a writer, do an excellent job of bringing the audience into her own headspace throughout the 15 years that she knew Trudeau. This deft usage of theatrical technique to express her own emotions (and therefore allowing the audience to feel them too) is admirable in its own right, but Johnson misses the chance to use her actual knowledge of the man himself to come to any kind of conclusion about Trudeau as a public and political figure.
Trudeau Stories seems to be aimed largely at an audience of those who supported and admired Trudeau, particularly those of Johnson’s generation or slightly older, though oddly it seems to be more about Johnson than Trudeau. I do not mean this as any kind of slight, but as an observation of the intensely personal nature of Johnson’s storytelling. We are never treated to anything beyond Johnson’s own personal experience, which includes references to CBC children’s television in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s as well as Restoration, Russian, and some Canadian theatre – an uncritical portrayal of the viewpoint of a Canadian theatre student, whose capacity to understand the complexity of the issues facing the leader of the goverment the audience is never encouraged to question.
It’s a very honest viewpoint but also very specific, which necessitates a longish list of ‘script references’ in the program for those of you who don’t already know that Lady Gay Spanker is an actual character in an actual play that has actually been performed. These references – particularly those regarding CBC television and Trudeau’s notoriously irreverent sense of humour – serve as an effective appeal to nostalgia for the members of the audience who remember Trudeau and those children’s TV shows, but to anyone outside that demographic these nostalgic references are lost, or at best only obliquely understood.
As Johnson did not meet Trudeau until after his resignation and retirement, her story is personal rather than political, and political discourse, if it did take place between them, is not a factor in Trudeau Stories. Instead Johnson offers up a rosy picture of a charming but complicated man without giving much thought toward what it was that made him complicated. Johnson’s honesty, combined with a lack of critical thought towards Trudeau, puts the focus much more on her than him, and as a member of the generation that is old enough to remember when there was only one Trudeau in Canadian politics it’s easy for a nostalgic audience to project themselves into her shoes.
This honesty is simultaneously part of the charm of Trudeau Stories and one of its biggest detractions. It allows Johnson’s talent as a performer to shine, but it shies away from a meaningful comment or conclusion. As someone who actually interacted with Trudeau over a number of years, Johnson is in a position to reconcile the man she knew with the Prime Minister who invoked the War Measures Act to combat the FLQ, whose policies of bilingualism and a more powerful federal government still divide Canadian political thought (some food for thought: Quebec’s National Assembly has still not approved the Constitution Act of 1982). She does not forward this position, however, which is astute business, but artistically weak.
Not wanting to air one’s proverbial laundry on stage is an understandable desire, but Johnson is the one who opened this can of worms by writing this play in the first place. Without any kind of critical exploration, or criticality, the piece neither inspires deep introspective thought, nor challenges or disrupts any dominant/traditional narratives about one of Canada’s most influential (and controversial) PMs. A missed opportunity on Johnson’s part, linking the past with the present (if only to inspire people to look further than a politician’s good hair, youthful nature, and family legacy) could have made this piece more accessible to a larger demographic, and certainly more relevant to 2017. It’s difficult, in this case then, to accept Trudeau Stories as more than a feel-good piece that helps sanitize the legacy of a prime minister who was certainly great but also had his own drawbacks.
Presented by the Great Canadian Theatre Company, January 12-29 (ticket info here)
Running Time: 75 minutes (no intermission)
Written and Performed by Brooke Johnson
Directed by Allyson McMackon
Stage Managers: Adrian Truss and Jacki Brabazon
Co-Producer: Adrian Truss
Floor Designer: Lindsay Anne Black
Lighting Designer: Glenn Davidson
Floor Painters: Ksenia Ivanova and Brooke Johnson