Andrew Wheeler & Emmelia Gordon. Photo credit: Pink Monkey Studios
(This is Jerry's review of the original 2014 Firehall production.)
Okay, I don’t actually believe that the Canucks wrecked their season, fired Mike Gillis and hired Trevor Linden as part of a plot by Stephen Harper to distract us so he can pass the Unfair Elections Act without anyone noticing. But Harper practices politics with such cynical gall and gets away with it so easily that almost nothing one can imagine him doing to consolidate his power seems too crass or absurd.
That’s a central premise of Michael Healey’s Proud, getting its west coast premiere under Donna Spencer’s direction at the Firehall.
But it’s not the only premise. Arriving with a reputation as a controversial political exposé of our current Prime Minister, Proud does score some sharp, insightful satirical barbs at Harper’s expense. But Harper-haters be warned: this play humanizes the man.
Proud was originally scheduled to premiere in 2012 at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, where Healey was playwright-in-residence. When the play was suddenly dropped from the season, apparently because a board member feared that it would generate a libel suit from the PM, Healey resigned from Tarragon and produced it himself. Proud carries the cachet of a protest play that survived the censor, but it’s really a comedy of political manners.
A big part of the fun is watching Andrew Wheeler channel the character referred to only as “the Prime Minister,” unmistakably Stephen Harper. Wheeler is almost a dead ringer for the guy even if his grey wig is slicked down a little more than Harper’s poofy do. Wheeler wisely avoids broad caricature. The telling details are his tight mouth, rigid body language and paunchy (padded) middle covered by the buttoned suit jacket. Every time he stands up, even when alone in his office, he buttons that jacket.
Proud is the portrait of a buttoned-up man seen at his most unbuttoned. The unbuttoner is an earthy, foul-mouthed single mother named Jisbella Lyth, played gleefully by Emmelia Gordon, who has unexpectedly become the new Tory MP for a Quebec riding after the 2011 federal election. The play imagines that the Conservatives, not the NDP, gained 59 seats in Quebec, and Harper has to deal with a backbench full of newbies like Jisbella who know nothing about how the game of politics is played.
She’s precocious and a quick learner. On her first day as an MP she bursts into the PM’s office while he’s in conference with his chief of staff, Cary (Craig Erickson), asking if either of them has a condom so she can have sex on her desk with someone who might as well be the devil himself–a CBC journalist.
With his unapologetically Machiavellian approach to governance, the PM realizes how he can use her. He assigns Jisbella to introduce an anti-abortion bill, fully intending to insure that it won’t pass. The idea is to distract the press and public from his immediate agenda: cutting the civil service, decimating environmental protections.
Although initially appalled by his cynicism, Jisbella goes along with the plan and quickly discovers how heady political gamesmanship can be. One of the funniest scenes in the play has them reveling in a staged argument in the PM’s office about Jisbella’s apparent rebellious behaviour, the door conveniently open just enough for the press outside to hear. Harper even kicks over a chair to make it sound like he’s enraged, Wheeler making a nice joke of the PM’s feeble attempts at machismo.
As he and straight-shooting Jisbella develop their relationship, she insults him to his face (“social retard” is one of her milder epithets) and he acknowledges the truth in her accusations. In another funny scene she forces Harper to stare at her breasts. Direct physical contact isn’t one of his strong suits, and much of the comedy arises out of her attempts to loosen him up.
But the Stephen Harper imagined by Michael Healey knows he’s a nerd and doesn’t much care. He feels comfortable enough with Jisbella to be candid with her about what he does care about, leading to earnest autobiographical exchanges about what drove them both to Conservatism and a revelation that his elaborately corrupt strategies are just the means to a single, modest political end.
The theatrical problem is that the ensuing lectures on political philosophy are dull. In a flash-forward, Healey also introduces us to Jisbella’s grown-up son Jake (Scott Button) and his political aspirations. Jake’s primary role is to offer an alternative political vision of Canada to the one Harper has espoused, another earnest idea that further dilutes the satire.
Those who believe that Stephen Harper’s role on earth is to destroy Canadian democracy might be troubled by the distractions this play offers from the very cynicism it identifies. “Integrity is the last thing Canadians want in their politicians,” Cary matter-of-factly asserts. “The things I say, the positions I take, the strategies I employ–these are all tools to acquire power,” the Prime Minister admits.
But the Stephen Harper of Proud is no monster. He’s just a man: goofy, uptight, controlling, flawed but intensely human. And maybe most dangerous for that very reason.