As a playwright who calls Canberra home, the thought of writing a play about politicians or politics has crossed my mind a few times. I've even started once, before giving up in disgust at the depressing result of that folly. I'm glad, though, that Alana Valentine gave it a better shot when she sat down to write MP.
MP is the story of a slightly cynical MP in the person of Ava Turner (played by Geraldine Turner) who has been shafted from the cabinet and puts on the young and also somewhat cynical Nadia Ravenburger (played by Leah Baulch) as her new Adviser. Together they encounter a pair of bereaved constituents who have just lost their twenty-something disabled daughter in tragic circumstances as a result of negligence in a commonwealth-run nursing home. Ava quickly and enthusiastically takes up the challenge of righting this injustice, and begins planning her approach.
The play is slow to start, and despite some interesting dialogue and a few laughs, the central character, Ava, doesn't fully engage until well into the first act. She's buried in the mire of political machinations for much of the play and as a result, is difficult to see clearly. Finally, Ava Turner does emerge from this mire, shortly after it is revealed that part of her motivation is her own son's intellectual disability, depicted with dignity by Soren Jensen. As a character, though, Ava soon returns to the mire of politics, and we lose sight of her again.
Though this may seem a weakness, I think it is actually a strength of the play, which demonstrates, perhaps even more effectively than the real politicians up on the hill, just how impotent our politicians are. Ava finds herself politicking by stealth, and as much as her true intentions are hidden from her colleagues, so too is her character hidden from the audience. This does lead to some rather dry dialogue, but it is punctuated by some spectacular monologues. The writer, Alana Valentine, as well as director Caroline Stacey, should be praised for their brave handling of these theatrical moments that really capture the depth in what is otherwise a very plot-driven play.
The often prosaic dialogue is also counterbalanced by a spectacular set. The use of precariously stacked white crockery, with a white floor, white chairs, white table and even a white 'ceiling' that together with a great lighting design create a myriad of locations unbalance what would otherwise be a play too firmly grounded in reality to draw our attention to its lofty themes.
As a Canberran, though, this play alienated me from the beginning. In the first act, the nature of the city in which the political game is played gets constant reference, but it is a single description of Canberra as a 'small town' that alienated me most. Not because I find it mildly discourteous towards my home, but because it seems ignorant of the fact that there are really two small and very separate communities colocated in this place. The Australian capital really is an extremely small and insular community, made up of politicians, their staff, and journalists from all over the continent who visit for a portion of each year and then go home. But they're not a part, and make no effort to be a part, of the very welcoming, inclusive and tolerant community for whom this place really is home.
The tragedy, I think, for MP, is that politicians really, genuinely, aren't very interesting. In most cases they're human beings who have had to curtail part of their humanity to make themselves palatable to their party first and then to their constituency. And since this play demonstrates both this and that, contrary to the myth of the 'political leader', they're also not very powerful, it seems to make itself almost redundant as a story. MP is redeemed by some fine monologues and an exploration of a politician's psyche. If you're a tourist visiting the capital and want a bit of a political theme for your entertainment while you're here, this is the perfect show.
The Street Theatre presents
by Alana Valentine
Director Caroline Stacey
Venue: The Street Theatre, 15 Childers St, Canberra City West
Dates: 1 – 15 October, 2011
Tickets: $49 – $29
Bookings: 6247 1223 | www.thestreet.org.au