16 October 2011

The enemy and the opposition

The play was The MP. and it was written in and about Canberra under a commission from the Street Theatre with advice from a string of names and unnamed (mostly female) politicians and journalists, so it was local and true to place and manners. And there’s something different about a Federal political culture. I doubt Canberra is like Sydney’s Bearpit. This is a culture that pulsates with the sitting sessions, that lives hard and fast, away from home and family, for the odd days and weeks of sitting sessions, like an ever repeating conference. The wrangling over dinner in Lyneham was there and the leaks in the Sculpture Garden, but also the presence of family and public and “real life” in the electoral office. It’s a common misconception that people and life outside Canberra are “real life” but it’s not true. The life of Parliament House is real – terrifyingly so, as we saw here – but it’s the life of power and decision and it’s played by its own, sometimes playful, sometimes brutal, but always knowing and power-aware rules.

As was never said but obviously implied, this was the story of a long-term, female opposition backbencher grappling with issues of disability in the time of a female PM, so it’s set now. But the themes are for all time: the role of women; power; family commitment and public duty; idealism vs practicalism. MP Ava Turner hires a confident new advisor, Nadia. The same day, a constituent couple visits asking for help to investigate the suicide of their 25-year old daughter with Acquired Brain Injury who had been raped and then suicided in a nursing home. Unknown to audience and characters, Ava has a disabled son who is also in care. She takes on the case as a crusade, there are public service leaks, journalist scoops, appearances on Q&A, various ministerial minder threats and offers, lover’s concerns and other constituent visits. In the end, she fails with a private member’s motion that isn’t seconded and considers crossing the floor if the Government includes her concerns in an upcoming bill. I won’t tell how it ends. Suffice to say, some characters thought she was a wily old politician who’d planned it all along, but it seemed to me a bit of luck that fell right. It was a long and involved play and I and others missed spots of dialogue, but it was well presented and interesting and topical. I pondered the bare stage setting with stacks of white plates and decided the symbolism of smashing plates at times of tension was satisfying. I was amused by Andrea Close who played four parts, including Ava’s old nurse mate Bonnie, now a mature and astute public servant. I particularly laughed at a scene where the Ava’s doctor lover plays the ministerial advisor at his own game. Soren Jensen’s performance as Cliff, Ava’s disabled son, was emotionally wrenching and his minder character, Drew, was chilling. Leah Baulch had a key part as Nadia and she was good, although I wasn’t always convinced by the character. Geraldine Turner was Ava, and she was eminently believable and had me thinking of the importance and yet impotence of the backbencher. We are lucky to have a decently functioning politics (as was observed in one scene) even if we don’t recognise it (as was also observed). Canberra was built for federal politics, and all Canberrans are aware of it even if they are not all centrally involved in it. The MP. seemed a true evocation of the life of Parliament House, the daily grind and manipulations, the public face and private fatigue, the public denigration and sheer politics, but also the personal commitment, the acquiescence and occasional bravery of this world. I enjoyed it immensely.

Geraldine Turner was Ava Turner MP. Leah Baulch was Nadia, and Andrea Close, Stephen Barker and Soren Jensen played other parts. Caroline Stacey directed and Alana Valentine wrote The MP. and it was commissioned by and premiered at the Street Theatre.

Review by John Uhr, Centre for Study of Aust'n Politics, ANU

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