February 7, 2013
Playwright: Michael Healey
Director: Glynis Leyshon
Belfry Theatre, Victoria
February 4-March 9
Reviewed by Joy Fisher
Photo by David Cooper
When I emerged from the Belfry Theatre after seeing actor-playwright Michael Healy’s latest play, Proud, I felt confused. Something was wrong, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.
Billed as “political satire” by its distinguished director, Glynis Leyshon, Proud was somehow unsatisfying despite “crackling” dialogue, fast pacing and polished acting by some of Canada’s finest, including Rick Roberts. Roberts, you may recall, played Jack Layton in the CBC biopic. In Proud, he shows his range by playing an unnamed Prime Minister modelled after our current Prime Minister. Now that’s versatility.
Proud proposes an alternative universe in which the Conservatives won Quebec in the last federal election and the Prime Minister has a massive majority including a feisty political neophyte named Jisbella Lyth, played assertively by Celine Stubel.
The Prime Minister, and his Chief of Staff, Cary, played by award winning actor Charlie Gallant, soon learn Jisbella has something in common with them: political amorality. Recognizing a kindred spirit, the PM concludes Jisbella is worth mentoring—and using. Having Jisbella author an anti-abortion (“pro-life”) bill to distract the press so the PM can slip through a change to government unnoticed seems like a fine idea to them all.
What’s the big change the PM wants to slip through on the QT? Muzzling government scientists? Ditching environmental laws? No, the PM wants to reduce the size of the Privy Council Office—a modest goal.
So where is the dramatic conflict in this play? There isn’t any, and, artistically, that’s this play’s main problem.
There are others. A fourth character, Jisbella’s grown-up son, played by UVic Theatre grad Kieran Wilson, talks about political morality from the vantage point of 2029, when the Prime Minister is still in power; but he’s too removed from the principal action of the play to matter. Finally, Proud is a “talky” play. During all the political yak, the Chief-of-Staff makes the point that “politics is fundamentally an emotional event.” Plays are also fundamentally emotional events, and a play that’s too talky can kill emotional response in the audience.
It might be argued that laughter is an emotional response, and it can’t be denied that Proud is humourous. But analyzing its humour reveals its genre confusion.
Although satire, like farce, is usually humourous, unlike farce, satire has a greater purpose: to draw attention to troubling social issues and offer constructive social criticism. Proud doesn’t do that. Since all the principal characters agree that political amorality is just fine, that issue isn’t examined; and since the PM’s goals are so modest and reasonable, no substantive issues are critiqued. Proud confused me because I expected satire; but what it offers isn’t satire: it’s only farce.
So if we can’t be proud of Proud as political satire, what can we be proud of?
We can be proud of Michael Healey for not giving up when Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, fearing a libel suit from the Prime Minister (the real one), nixed his play despite the fact he had been a playwright-in-residence there for more than a decade.
We can be proud that other theatre companies all across Canada from Halifax to Vancouver staged readings of Proud, both to raise money for its independent production and to support the principle of free artistic expression.
And we can be proud that the Canadian public rallied to the cause by contributing almost $18,000 in twenties and hundreds in response to a crowd-funding campaign to pay for its premiere in Toronto.
As a work of art, Proud may disappoint; but the circumstances surrounding its realization are cause for celebration.
Joy Fisher graduated from UVic in 2013 with a BFA in writing. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.