Tommy Murphy dramatises the unlikely friendship between Australian journo Mark Colvin and expat businesswoman Mary-Ellen Field, in this new Australian play
Imagine losing your career, your reputation and your freedom in the time it took to hold a business meeting. Imagine being defamed in tabloid news. Imagine being sent to a rehab facility when you weren’t suffering from an addiction, and being accused of sharing secrets you had kept staunchly to yourself. And then imagine finding enough belief in humankind to commit a selfless and generous act like donating a kidney. To a man you had never met. To a journalist.
Sounds like a fantasy, right? A too-good-to-be true kind of fiction. But this actually happened.
Mark Colvin’s Kidney, a new play by Holding the Man scribe Tommy Murphy and currently in its premiere season at Belvoir, is the story of brand manager and Type A careerist Mary-Ellen Field, an Australian expat who counted supermodel Elle Macpherson among her substantial portfolio of clients. It was a gossipy news item about Elle’s private life that sparked Mary-Ellen’s downfall, and it would be years before her apparent confidentiality breach would be recognised as an example of phone hacking – the scandal that swept across the British tabloid media.
In the play, Mary-Ellen (played here by Sarah Peirse) is initially difficult to parse – is she an alcoholic? Is she inappropriate, maybe a little delusional, in her quest to clear her name? Is her attachment to Australian journalist Mark Colvin (John Howard) healthy? s their friendship even mutual? It’s difficult to warm up to her, and the first act suffers for it, sitting somewhere between dry documentary and halting drama as we see her fall from grace without ever seeing her at the top of her game, mired in her darkest moments before we really know who she is outside this situation of extreme duress.
But in the second act, free from exposition and introductions, something cracks through the stiffness – a sort of joyous, theatrical sunshine. We learn that Mary-Ellen believes in signs and spirituality; we see her stubbornness anew, as something to be admired as well as dreaded. She bustles her way into Mark Colvin’s hospital room and doesn’t leave until he accepts her gift of a kidney. She spars good-naturedly, kindly, with her husband Bruce (Peter Carroll). She cares.
Peirse’s performance is detailed (there’s a moment in the second act involving dinner plates that’s irresistibly, genuinely awkward), warm, and always – satisfyingly – at least a little bit prickly.
With a first act so full of information – about Mary-Ellen and Elle and their legal and health problems, about the Leveson Inquiry into phone-hacking – we don’t really get a chance to connect meaningfully with Colvin until the second act. Howard crafts a subtle performance; the essence of Colvin rather than an imitation, and if you’re familiar with the voice of the ABC Radio National PM program, you might enter the play already feeling like you know the journalist well. If you don’t, he might seem a puzzlement, or a plot device.
When Mark Colvin’s Kidney works, it’s rewarding. With a cast that includes Helen Thomson, Christopher Stollery, and Kit Esuruoso in a variety of roles, as well Peirse, Howard, and Carroll, there’s magnetism and charm to spare onstage;it’s a real treat to see a brand-new Australian play interpreted by a generous and an exciting cast of actors. Director David Berthold infuses the production with a hint of thriller, with projections of newspapers and inquiry footage, and flashbacks from Colvin’s traumatic experiences as a foreign correspondent that erupt out of mundane acts.
Though Murphy’s script embraces 21st century communication – projections (by Vexran Productions) come to life bearing email chains and text messages sent and received – Berthold hasn’t quite figured out how to incorporate these dialogues into the direct action on stage. For example: Mary-Ellen is causing a disturbance in a church as she texts, but with no keyboard clicks or text message alerts – even initially, to set the scene – it just seems like she’s texting quietly. It’s perhaps not good behaviour for a church, but not one that would cause frustrated looks from onlookers.
And there’s something uneven about the play, something too non-committal in its structure to really encourage us to invest in the action. It might be that, like a journalist, Murphy has held his leading characters at arm’s length, relaying fact rather than dramatic, emotional insight. His play is slow to warm up.
It could be that Murphy ‘tells’ more than he ‘shows’ – we don’t get to see Mary-Ellen as the high-functioning businesswoman we are told she is , we don’t get to see Colvin outside of his contact with Mary-Ellen or his time in the hospital, and we don’t get even a hint at why Mary-Ellen will have major organ-donating surgery for someone she barely knows, until half of the play is over.
But there is an undeniable, life-affirming thread running through the piece, and the play ends on a hopeful note. There’s a lesson here underneath the deception, scandal, and Twitter obsession: something about small and large acts of kindness, about reaching out a hand to someone in need. You might just leave feeling uplifted.