1979, a new play by the esteemed Michael Healey debuted Thursday night at the GCTC as a co-production with the Shaw Festival. A farcical, somewhat fantastical, and wholly fictional take on the behind the scenes of real historical events, Healey’s play aims its satire squarely at the individuals who formed the Canadian political elite around Joe Clark during his ill-fated and brief stint in the Prime Minister’s office.
The stage is set up in a semi-realist, “period-accurate” Prime Minister’s office, a large projector screen upstage of the wainscotting forming the back wall. Two doors in the upstage corners lead out to the “bustling” hallway of Parliament, from whence the competing characters that populate this world burst onto the stage. With Sanjay Talwar’s Joe Clark remaining in his office throughout, Marion Day and Kelly Wong are left to embody the motley cast of rock-star famous and little-known historical characters.
The acting was strong in general, with a few opening-night jitters being rather believable in the highly stressful reality of the governmental crisis occupied by the characters. Marion Day, in particular, stood out in her performances as the inordinately slimey Brian Mulroney, and as an earnest and terrifying young Stephen Harper. Talwar succeeds in the difficult task of exaggerating his character into caricature of a man even more earnest and unremarkable than the Prime Minister widely referred to as “Joe Who?” Playing the straight-man against such a diverse string of ludicrous characters can’t be easy, and Talwar is often wonderfully on point.
Healey’s text is tightly wound and energetic, especially considering the bland reputation that sometimes comes along with a show “about Canadian Politics.” It’s stuffed full of humour that the characters get, and some that only we understand, with our privileged position as an audience living 38 years in the play’s future.
This brings me to the aspect of the show that I have a difficult time getting on board with. I am strongly in favour of presenting and learning history as a way of holding up a mirror to our contemporary context, and this play certainly attempts to do that. I am not sure, however, that this play quite balances the tension that exists between its historical setting and our contemporary reality. Much of this concern comes from the design, and some from the script itself.
I want to begin with the projections. They are incredibly text-heavy and, despite their attempts to win us over with self-aware humour, they feel like they don’t belong. The scrolling, clearly digital text is projected on a plain background that is separate from the set. The separation of the screen from the rest of the set is particularly baffling to me, especially given the gesture the set makes towards establishing an upstage wall and it’s “realist” design. There is a jarring gap between the closed world of the actors, who appear to live in 1979 and never acknowledge the audience, and this highly contemporary screen that looms over them and speaks directly to us. It would be easy enough to project onto a wall of the “office” in a fashion more evocative of 1979 than now. Something like transparencies on an overhead, or a slide projector. While I don’t think that would send quite the right message either, if it were combined with a more fanciful stage design that matched the cartoonish world of the characters, it would be less of an obvious conflict. Putting Joe Clark at a gigantic desk, for example, would be thematically relevant and encourage a version of play-reality where projections we can see but are invisible to the characters might make sense.
Furthermore, the projections themselves felt like something that had just been tacked on to give the audience important context. While context is important in this story, this means of conveying it was thoroughly not integrated into the rest of the show. The text was fun, and informative, but it made me wonder about the curatorial impact of the playwright on selecting the facts, and how they were presented. The projections were a purely narrative tool, and not at all a theatrical one.
The sound design also suffered from a skewed, not-fully-integrated balance between play-world and real-world. At times, the audio was explicitly controlled by the characters in the office in “1979.” And then Pierre Elliott Trudeau made his impressive entrance to a song by The Tragically Hip that rang discordantly with the rest of the musical selections. The rest of the music seemed to belong to “1979,” or was at least obscure enough that it didn’t strike me like a compact disc embossed with the stamp “1994.”
For me, the most interesting scene in the play is the one that has no historical possibility of having occurred. As the projected text acknowledges, Stephen Harper didn’t begin working on Parliament Hill until 1985, and yet he has a lengthy and quite interesting conversation with the besieged Joe Clark of 1979. My interest in this scene over many of the others could simply be a result of its recent personal relevance; I clearly remember the day 2 years ago that Stephen Harper left the Prime Minister’s office, and he represents an important contemporary authority figure for me. And yet, something about the strength of this purely fanciful encounter makes me think that an even more fanciful take on the rest of the situation might have granted Healey the means to speak more directly and more powerfully to the audience in 2017 than even the choice to blast us with unsourced, projected text allows.
In my capacity as a critic, I think it’s important to note again that this play consists almost entirely of fictional text attributed to real historical individuals, with a sprinkling of uncited statistics attributed to a seemingly omniscient narrator in the form of projections. This set up makes me leery about buying the play’s political message, because I’m a luddite when it comes to 1979, and it leaves me with no option but to trust Healey’s interpretation of the historical facts; I don’t have any other version to go on.
Nevertheless, looking closely at Healey’s depiction of perhaps the most earnest man to ever hold the office of Prime Minister, and the issues facing his government, provides interesting insight into our contemporary reality. These insights take some work to reach on the part of the audience, but the play reflects the dilemmas in our contemporary reality as we observe the power politics at play south of the border, and within the present-day Conservative Party of Canada. As it is, 1979 features strong performances and a crisp, comical, and strikingly relevant text that isn’t just for government-steeped Ottawans or Polisci buffs. Despite some shortcomings in the design, this play’s quick wit will unite the audience like Joe Who? never could.
Michael Healey: Playwright
Eric Coates: Director
Marion Day: Actor A
Sanjay Talwar: The Prime Minister
Kelly Wong: Actor B
Katherine Dermott: Assistant Stage Manager
Jennifer Goodman: Costume Designer
Steve Lucas: Set, Lighting, and Projection Designer
Bronwyn Steinberg: Assistant Director
Allan Teichman: Stage Manager
Keith Thomas: Sound Designer
Echo Zhou: Assistant Designer
Images courtesy GCTC.ca