Entertainment

Shaw’s 1979: The boogie wonderland of politics

John Law

By John Law, Niagara Falls Review

Sanjay Talwar as Joe Clark (left) and Kelly Wong as Pierre Trudeau in the Shaw Festival's 1979. It continues at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre until Oct. 14. PHOTO: Andrew Alexander.

Sanjay Talwar as Joe Clark (left) and Kelly Wong as Pierre Trudeau in the Shaw Festival's 1979. It continues at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre until Oct. 14. PHOTO: Andrew Alexander.

1979, by Michael Healey. Starring Sanjay Talwar, Marion Day and Kelly Wong. Directed by Eric Coates. At the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre until Oct. 14. **** (out of five)

There are some shows you go to to escape the drudgery of the real world. Others offer a break from depressing politics.

Michael Healey’s 1979…is not that show. Fair warning.

But while a comedy about politics might seem exhausting at this particularly ludicrous crossroad in history, some weird stuff went on 38 years ago in this country worth talking about. A Progressive Conservative from Alberta named Joe Clark somehow defeated the iconic Pierre Trudeau to become the youngest Prime Minister in Canada at 39. He won on the slogan “Let’s get Canada working again!”

His term was about as long as an NHL season.

Alas, Clark was a lame duck Prime Minister who only held the position for nine months, defeated by the suddenly un-retired Trudeau. He had no support, no respect, and ultimately no chance. His term was a farce. So here’s the farce on that farce.

Playing all summer in random ‘unplugged’ performances at the Shaw Festival, Healey’s biting comedy has settled in for a two-week run at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre. It feels like a bonus show to the 2017 Shaw schedule, but ends up being one of the funniest and unconventional shows of the season.

There’s cussing. There’s disco. There’s Trudeau dancing to the Tragically Hip with a chainsaw. There’s also a big screen offering helpful details, so even political novices can grasp what’s going on. Although at one point it reads: “What the hell…you didn’t come to the theatre to read stuff.”

Healey’s play never claims to be 100 percent true - it’s upfront about a meeting between Clark and a young Stephen Harper that never happened - but it presents the facts in an exaggerated way that gives you the gist of what happened. The fact it’s frequently laugh-out-loud funny helps, though it often masks a scary undertone.

Clark was a dud of a PM because he thought - naively - he could operate outside the system.

The system had other plans.

As played by Sanjay Talwar, who is having a killer season at Shaw, Clark isn’t quite a buffoon, but nowhere near Prime Minister material. As the play makes clear, he sidestepped into office because the country was voting against Trudeau. As he takes office, Clark doesn’t have the seats to pass gas, much less a budget he’s pinning everything on.

His own party doesn’t like him. The Liberals and NDP are banding together against him. And just when things look most bleak, Trudeau (Kelly Wong) pays him a visit and ends up talking himself into running again: “This time I won’t say anything…not a thing. I’ll do it on charm.”

The play takes place entirely in Clark’s office on the day of the ill-fated budget vote (everything about Clark was ill-fated, actually). As he tries to chill by cranking the stereo (Bruce Springsteen’s Tenth Avenue Freeze-out to start), visitors trot in and out, keeping pace like any good farce. Wong and Marion Day double-team the supporting cast, playing Clark’s finance minister, his wife, his secretary, and rivals like Brian Mulroney. The gender doesn’t matter, Wong and Day play whoever’s required, though it’s Day who gets some of the play’s best moments as a young, creepy Harper. Like a Terminator, he details how to successfully navigate politics in a cold, detached manner which Clark can’t comprehend.

It’s like the ghost of Ottawa’s future telling him what’s in store. If you can’t play the game, get off the field.

Weird as it feels for Shaw to be ‘opening’ a show in October - the month most productions close - 1979 is a worthy late-season addition. And a reminder why good people don’t usually make good politicians.

jlaw@postmedia.com

 



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