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.