Michael Healey's infamous script sheds its scandalous past with a laugh-filled debut at the Berkeley Street Theatre.
The Saturday night opening of Michael Healey’s Proud (we published an excerpt of it, here) was packed with extremely excited guests, and the atmosphere was more buzzed than it would have been at a typical play opening. But it wasn’t the playwright’s past successes that had created the hype; it was Proud‘s history. Before the play found a home at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Tarragon Theatre artistic director Richard Rose refused to program it in his upcoming season. The exact reason for this choice remains unconfirmed, but some have speculated that Rose was afraid that Proud‘s portrayal of Prime Minister Stephen Harper would be considered libelous.
Following the snub, Healey left his position as playwright in residence at Tarragon, which he had held for 11 years. In protest against what they saw as artistic censorship, artists from around the country performed various staged readings of an early draft of Proud this spring.
But this week marked the first independently produced full production of the searing play about Harper and the Conservative Party. It’s the third instalment in Healy’s acclaimed trilogy of satires of Canadian values (the first two were Generous and Courageous).
Healey, the cast, and the crew should all be proud that they acted quickly and didn’t let Proud fade from our attention, like so many documents about the torture of Afghan detainees.
Opening night was not only a win for artistic expression in Canada, but also for theatre in Canada. Proud has the bite, wit, and relevance that made theatre produced between the late 1960s and early 1980s so powerful. It reminds us of Linda Griffith’s Maggie and Pierre, the Dora Award–winning 1980 play about the private and public lives of Mr. and Mrs. Trudeau (which, coincidentally, was also part of the Theatre Passe Muraille fundraiser that helped pay for Proud‘s first stage reading). It is current, it is engaging, and it reveals a nuanced and unexpected perspective on our current prime minister.
The play begins immediately after the Conservatives win the 2011 election—only, in this universe, the NDP loses all of its Quebec ridings to the Tories, creating a House of Commons that’s a sea of blue. Leaving her management job at St-Hubert to take up her post as a newly elected MP, Jisbella Lyth (Maev Beaty) makes a startling impression on both Chief of Staff Cary Baines (Tom Barnett) and the Prime Minister himself (Healey). They form a dastardly trio, with Jisbella as the sacrificial lamb. She tables an anti-abortion bill while the Prime Minister cuts the Privy Council down by a third, and makes other moves the press would swarm over if they weren’t distracted. Jisbella is a devoted protégée, and she catches on quickly. The play turns into a dance of wit, strategy (or, tactics: there’s a difference, as the PM explains), and, if you can believe it, sex. Yes, it’s as awkward as you’d expect.
Healey clearly doesn’t agree with Harper’s politics, but after so much analysis and research, it’s equally clear that he respects the Prime Minister for doing a job. Proud is not an angry play. Funny, ridiculous, and absurd, yes. But Harper, who isn’t actually named until the final monologue from Jeff Lillico’s character, comes across as a man who has work to do, free of any kind of sentimentality or emotion. In fact, thanks to a soon-to-be iconic performance by Healey, Harper is at his most passionate when talking about the issues he doesn’t care about, which are many. When he consoles Jisbella’s crying son on the phone, he’s charming and jovial. But when he hangs up the phone, the moment is over. The move was a robotic impulse for a politician who bases his campaign on feelings over beliefs, and self-preservation over cooperation.
Jisbella is, at once, the Prime Minister’s exact opposite and his kindred spirit. Surprisingly, she gets the upper hand by using sexuality as a tool for overpowering the PM’s monumentally inept social skills. Cary, the chief of staff, treats his job with the same type of indifference Harper shows for the issues. He knows his days on Parliament Hill are numbered by nature. The performances are strong; the characters are unfamiliar yet understandable. The play is all around enjoyable.
This script has been greatly changed since its first reading. The revisions have strengthened the characters, relationships, and morals. Direction from Miles Potter keeps the pace fast and captivating, even when the dialogue gets wordy. The only thing left to save is the ending, which comes off as a bit of an easy way out. While it provides a useful opposite view of Harper’s style of politics, it could be better woven into the story.
The fear of backlash from the portrayal of Stephen Harper in Proud stems from SummerWorks’ loss of federal funding in 2011, after the play Homegrown drew ire from the Tories for its portrayal of a member of the Toronto 18. But after seeing Proud, it’s hard to believe that Harper would take a vested interest in a little Toronto play. The Harper portrayed by Healy, at any rate, wouldn’t care at all. But what’s clear is that the theatre community does.