Trudeau Sr. Reigns in SHAW’s “1979”

Review by Judith Robinson
            Michael Healey’s play, 1979, now playing at the Shaw Festival, takes a tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted approach to a turbulent time in Canadian politics. On the eve of Joe Clark’s fatal budget vote on Dec. 12, 1979, which ultimately brought down his minority government, the Prime Minister faces perhaps the most important decision of his life. Several visitors to Clark’s office give the Prime Minister dire predictions about his chances of staying in office. Clark’s wife, Maureen McTeer, several cabinet ministers, Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper and Pierre Trudeau all pay Clark imaginary visits, on the fatal day, begging him to reconsider going ahead with the vote.

Talwar & Wong in a scene from “1979”
Photo by Andrew Alexander

The set up for the play is dramatic and dynamic. It is a great play in the making. But Clark’s character was never pushed to the breaking point – merely satirized. And the scenes, throughout the production, were interrupted by projections which distracted from the impact of the dramatic action.  A constant chatter of words on a screen kept the audience up to date with factual information—Trudeau’s statistical failures in office, the number of votes needed from various parties for Clark to win the vote etc. Couldn’t this information have been included in the program if it was absolutely necessary?
The production was funny. Healey has the ability to make an audience laugh. But making fun of Clark’s values (many of which could be considered Canada’s values) somehow didn’t seem like fair play, especially on the nation’s 150th birthday. And the slapstick criticisms didn’t resonate at the same depth as the more serious sections of the play.
The talented actors, and some of them had to play several roles, seemed to be struggling with the overall confines of the dramatic set up. Marion Day played Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper, Maureen McTeer, Flora MacDonald and several others, with equal dexterity – providing an insight into the troubling images in Clark’s head. But it was too much for an eighty-five minute production. Too much information, on the screen and off, seemed to prevent the characters from being deeply revealed.
            Sanjay Talwar, as Joe Clark, was at his best when he was sparring with Pierre Trudeau.  Kelly Wong lit up the stage as Trudeau from the moment he entered, swirling around in charming glee. Although the actor does not look one bit like Trudeau, he was able to pull off the effervescent essence of the Prime Minister extremely well. If the whole play had consisted of scenes between Trudeau and Clark, it would have been dazzling.
Whether Clark pushed Trudeau into making his come back in 1980, as he did in this play, is a matter of conjecture. But that scene demonstrated brilliant playwriting by Healey. If he’d revealed this depth and insight in all the scenes, 1979 would have been far more compelling. While a greater understanding of Pierre Trudeau was clearly invoked, at the end of this production, Clark remained a possibly, wrongly criticized, mystery. Still, the time period is fascinating, the acting is good and the jokes abound.
1979“, a co-production with the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa, will be playing at the Shaw Festival, in various venues, until October 14th.