Anyone familiar with the work of Tommy Murphy is likely to be very excited to hear the playwright is gearing up to premiere a new Australian work at Belvoir. Tommy has brought us such memorable works as Strangers in Between, Gwen in Purgatory and the indelible classic Holding the Man. He takes on another true story in Mark Colvin’s Kidney, and provides us with one of the year’s most intriguing and surprising on-stage heroines.
Some may recall the infamous phone-hacking scandal in 2011 and the subsequent Leveson Inquiry, which shed light on the unscrupulous methods of tabloid papers, namely Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. One of the victims to emerge was successful Australian business consultant, Mary-Ellen Field, who was accused of leaking the secrets of her Supermodel client Elle Macpherson to the press – information that was obtained via the phone hacks. In trying to restore her reputation, Mary-Ellen reaches out to one of one of Australia’s most respected journalists, Mark Colvin, via Twitter. The two form an unlikely friendship that changes both their lives.
Before Mark Colvin’s Kidney opens, Tommy talks to us about bringing this extraordinary true story to stage, gaining the trust of his subjects, and the key to his enduring creative relationship with director David Berthold.
Some people may recall elements of this play from the headlines. How did you first encounter this story, and why did you want to turn it into a play?
“Find a play that is global and local” was the task set by Belvoir’s Artistic Director, Eamon Flack. I decided a play centring on a Foreign Correspondent was the ticket. That led me to Mark Colvin, via many interviews with other journalists. I shadowed him as he made his nightly radio current affairs program PM one afternoon.
Mary-Ellen is a surprising and pretty extraordinary hero – full of conviction and courage and compassion. What did you find so intriguing about her?
Her grit. I wouldn’t be as brave as her, given what she was up against. I guess that’s the question the play poses to the audience: Would you do what Mary-Ellen did? And should you? Are her actions the right actions? That intrigues me. There are ethical puzzles in this story. There’s a fight for justice and a really surprising triumph.
There’s so much packed into this story – from the phone hacking scandal to Mark’s time reporting in Rwanda to Mary-Ellen wanting to donate her kidney. What was the biggest challenge in scripting this story?
It is a story of diverse components. I enjoyed those weird disconnects. How do we go from a scene with a supermodel to a journalist covering a humanitarian crisis, or a scene about kidney surgery to Rupert Murdoch? Questions like that were scrawled in my notepad early on.
It is those contrasts and the surprise uncanny connections are what make this story. Mary-Ellen is the victim of the very worst journalistic behaviour – phone hacking by News of the World – and she ends up saving the life of one of the best of the profession, Mark Colvin.
How did Mary-Ellen and Mark Colvin respond to the idea of a play about their friendship? What kind of involvement did they have in the script?
We talk all the time. They are both at hand to fact check and provide more background. They’ve been extremely generous and trusting. I’ve offered for them to read the play but they insist that they’d just prefer to be there on opening night. So, that’ll be a moment. Here’s hoping I don’t have to escape out the vom!
Can you talk about some of the research you did for the play?
Mostly it was interviews but there’s also a wealth of documentation and reporting. My friend Jude, a lawyer in the UK, helped me dig up court transcripts from the Royal Courts of Justice. I trawled the internet and asked favours from contacts in media archives. But really it was about talking to people and hearing firsthand how this unfolded.
Mary-Ellen and Mark’s friendship develops in a very modern way in some respects – via tweets, emails and text messages, which are actually woven into the story. Was it difficult at all to depict this relationship in a theatre setting?
My first question to Mary-Ellen was ‘So, how did this go from a tweet to an organ donation?’ Mary-Ellen kept them all: all their texts and emails and of course we have the tweets. There were lots of choices about how to make use of that. I always knew it would be key to the storytelling. Director, David Berthold, and our designer, Michael Hankin, have a very beautiful staging solution for how we credit our sources. There’s something journalistic in being able to say ‘hey this bit is true’ and to boost the veracity of our scenes. We are making that claim of truth. It’s a story about a protagonist who struggles to correct falsehoods.
As a writer, you’ve adapted another true story with Holding the Man. What is your approach to writing a play based on real events and people – is it about doing your research and getting a sense of the people involved, and then giving yourself creative license to try and tell the truest version?
Well, it’s a delicate thing. You have to gain trust and rapport. You have to be principled and decent about it. You have to be honest. Actually, I’ve come to compare it with what I have learned about Mark’s techniques as a journalist. I really admire his integrity. Some people want to tell their story and others do not. There are some no-go areas and you have to respect that.
My job is also about empathy – even for antagonists. By creating dramatic characters you must understand their motives. You have to make sense of what moves them to act. By doing that, you are trying to render them human, to honour their struggles. I think, for the most part, people are proud that their story is of enough consequence to inspire a play. But I would never take that for granted. The responsibility is acutely felt. These are real lives.
David Berthold has directed a number of your works – why do you guys click so well as a creative team? What do you feel he has brought to Mark Colvin’s Kidney?
He’s a wonderful leader. He knows how to inspire the people around him without controlling their creative impulses.
David is currently the Director of the Brisbane Festival, so we’re lucky to have pinched him for a moment. He directs a variety of theatre, including the classics, but I reckon David’s his happiest when he’s bringing a new play into the world. It’s his specialty.
David’s first response to the story was about altruism. Why does she want to give the kidney and why does he refuse? That dramatic battle was a hook for him. It provided me with a frame for my next draft and completely reshaped the structure.
David and I have worked together a lot – since I was a teenager in fact. There’s this methodology that’s evolved over the decades. Some call that ‘shorthand’. That doesn’t explain the way we speak at length. Mostly me; I’m the chatty one. He tends to say ‘no’ or ‘mmm’ and I know the scene lives or dies on that little utterance. We’re never daunted by saying ‘that’s not working; lets’ fix it’. Even the difficult bits are very enjoyable. That’s handy. So I suppose, as well as those long talks and walks, there is efficiency, a kind of shorthand, especially in the rehearsal room, that comes with knowing each other well. It comes from trust. Like, he’ll pick up his pencil and I think ‘yeah I don’t see it yet but whatever that bastard’s about to strike out will go.’ We mustn’t tell David this but when it comes to dramaturgy he is very nearly always right…
Mark Colvin’s Kidney is playing at Belvoir from 25 February to 2 April. For more information and to purchase tickets, head here.