Mark Colvin’s Kidney

By Tommy Murphy
Director David Berthold

  • Venue Upstairs Theatre
  • Dates 25 February – 2 April 2017
  • Duration 2 hours and 30 minutes (inc interval)

    **VALE MARK COLVIN 1952 – 2017**

    A premiere Australian play based on actual events, showing just how startling real-life can be.

    Mary-Ellen Field is a successful Australian business consultant in London – until she’s accused of betraying the secrets of her clients to the press. Her life comes crashing down, and she starts to wonder if she’s losing her mind. Then it emerges that her phone was being illegally tapped by reporters, and she sets out on a campaign to restore her reputation.

    But along the way, her ideas of redemption change – she’s been interviewed by a journalist on the other side of the world, and his story puts everything into a new perspective.


    In plays like Gwen in Purgatory and Holding The Man, Tommy Murphy keeps finding these unlikely great theatrical figures, and Mary-Ellen Field is no exception. I’ve become really enamoured of Mary-Ellen’s bizarre heroic quality and her optimism, it’s surprising, it’s original. And to have this part played by Sarah Peirse – she’s so charismatic, whipsmart. When you see Sarah get the taste of a role, it’s thrilling to watch. – Eamon

    Mark Colvin’s Kidney was co-commissioned with Playwriting Australia. It has been supported by Macquarie Group employees and the Macquarie Group Foundation under its staff support policy.

    Warning: This production contains strong language and depicts medical procedures containing blood. Please contact Box Office if you require further information.


    Writer Tommy Murphy
    Director David Berthold
    Set Designer Michael Hankin
    Costume Designer Julie Lynch
    Lighting Designer Damien Cooper
    Composer & Sound Designer Nate Edmondson
    Projection Design Vexran Productions
    Movement Director Scott Witt
    Stage Manager Luke McGettigan
    Assistant Stage Manager Keiren Smith


    Peter Carroll
    Kit Esuruoso
    John Howard
    Sarah Peirse
    Christopher Stollery
    Helen Thomson


    Production images by Brett Boardman
    Rehearsal images by Brett Boardman
    • Writer’s Note


      Tommy Murphy

      This is the play in which renal defeats venal. We can thank actor, John Howard, for coining that phrase. In our final script workshop, Sarah Peirse, who plays Mary-Ellen Field, noted a turning point. Her character concludes that the structures she trusted – the law, the state, the press, even the simple decency of her fellow humans – have failed her. The turning point comes with the choice she makes. In an ethically deficient world, the individual can only take charge of one person’s actions – her own. In identifying this, I heard Sarah explain to me the heart of the story.

      Many people contribute to the making of a play. For this one in particular that includes some real living people. Those I managed to reach granted me their trust and wisdom. I thank them.

      Belvoir’s Artistic Director, Eamon Flack, provided the initial provocation that triggered the hunt for ‘…a play that is local and global’. I had already been curious about creating a journalist character. The forces of change on the profession and a journalist’s daily wrestle with matters of principle seemed delicious for drama. I suggested to Eamon that a play centring on a foreign correspondent might fit the bill. Seeking inspiration, I spoke to many journos both abroad and locally – one who lived across the road in fact. They all offered glimpses into brilliant lives and striking moments of ethical quandary. I even began a draft about one bright spark. He’d got himself into a pickle in the United States and was arrested for doing his job. Great. Several scenes into my draft he apparently hired a clever lawyer and got away with it. Good for him. But my second act vanished. He is on notice to continue to live a life rich with dramatic incident and get back to me. Along the way he suggested I speak to his mentor, a person who is a guiding figure for many…

      I shadowed Mark Colvin at ABC radio for an afternoon as he made his flagship national current affairs program PM. Here it was. He was describing scenes. Did he see my eyes light up at the exchanges of dialogue I was desperate to scribble down there and then? I was a stranger and he had begun the first draft of Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son. He could very well have told me to go and get stuffed. However, like all the journalists I met, Mark had been on the other side of an obfuscating interviewee. He displayed a professional duty to share the truth. And he did not stand in the way of someone who was keen to file a story. So he permitted me to go right ahead. What a guy!

      The mode of making the play began to echo its content: interviews, recorded voice, and the way distance can achieve an intimate connection. Mark arranged for me to meet Mary-Ellen Field via Skype. I have the recordings, with permission. I began with, ‘So tell me, how did this go from a tweet to an organ donation?’ I heard her wonderful laugh for the first time. Mark would call me on long car trips. I’d conduct an interview, sometimes nervously as he is one of the great interviewers in the country. I tried to apply his own advice. ‘Why?’ is often the best question. Listening is the most important thing. I’d get lost in his stories, lost with that voice, and have to remind myself to respond because this time he was not on my kitchen radio.

      The first draft was complete before a film festival gave me the opportunity to be in London where I met Mary-Ellen Field in person. ‘Oxygenating will fix your jetlag,’ she advised me. So there I was pedalling along the Thames and Richmond Park alongside my protagonist. I was struck that Mary-Ellen was so generous with the details. Emails would promptly arrive with the documents to back up her testimony. She is a victim of a terrible intrusion into her privacy, yet she allowed this stranger to hear it and see it all. She wanted the story told. I have felt that responsibility acutely.

      Now the play is complete and I have many people to thank. They include the actors who workshopped early exploratory drafts. They are the staff of Belvoir led by Brenna Hobson who have expertly shepherded this project to the stage. They are the cast and entire team led by my long-time collaborator, director David Berthold, for whom it is always thrilling to work your hardest, and who knows when I am bullshitting and when the work is truthful.

      So, here is a story that makes claims of truth. It is about a woman who sought to correct falsehoods. It comes to you as we brace for the era of ‘fake news’.

      Tommy Murphy gratefully acknowledges the Sidney Myer Foundation.

    • Director’s Note



      Ripples of Hope

      I remember being glued to the Leveson Inquiry. All that rigorous interrogation and the testimonies of the famous, including a fragile-looking Rupert Murdoch. It felt like we were witnessing the fall of a media empire. It felt like the world was about to change and that ‘truth’ and ‘ethics’ and ‘justice’ would somehow flourish.

      Five years on, that feeling is foreign. ‘Alternative facts’ fight with the truth, and justice for many seems more distant than ever.

      I was not aware of Mary-Ellen Field’s story until Tommy Murphy, that most intrepid of playwrights, brought it to my attention. Things struck me with immediate force. Here was a very successful woman, a member of the Conservative Party, who bit by bit had her natural faith in the cornerstones of British justice eroded. More specifically, here was someone who had been treated savagely by the media and yet decided to give her kidney to a journalist. How does that happen?

      Altruism is mysterious. Evolutionary biology and neurobiology tell us that we’re hardwired for it, but that the trigger can be untouched. We are often suspicious of those who say they expect no reward for their kindness. The idea of absolute selflessness (is there such a thing?) doesn’t quite gel in times when empathy seems to be in such short supply.

      But, it happened. Mary-Ellen gave Mark a kidney, that spectacular centre of the body’s waste disposal system. That act of kindness, in its private, personal way, helped to cleanse. It added, in its modest way, to the sum of goodness in the world. Perhaps, in the face of crushing malice and injustice, that is the best we can hope for. Perhaps, though, such acts, however small, accumulate and cultivate.

      Perhaps Mark Colvin’s Kidney can be part of that current, its own ripple of hope.

      Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

      (Robert F. Kennedy, Day of Affirmation address delivered at the University of Capetown, South Africa, June 6, 1966)

    • Mark Colvin’s Kidney Podcast

      Go behind the scenes of this extraordinary true story.

      Produced for Belvoir by Zoe Ferguson.

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