Michael Healey’s brand new political satire 1979 was put to a full house, not for a vote but to entertain the audience members that packed the place for the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s opening night Thursday.
The play was a hit, which is not surprising when considering that Ottawa is a political town. Most folks here know their Alexander Mackenzie from their Mackenzie King, and can appreciate defining moments in Canadian history, such as the December 1979 non-confidence vote that defeated Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative minority government.
Paul Wells, a senior writer at Maclean’s magazine and an award-winning political author, was so impressed with the show that he plans to return to see it again. He’ll also be urging his political friends to see it.
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“I was blown away,” he told OBJ.social at the opening night reception. “I thought it might be a good play but I thought it wouldn’t have much to do with the way politics actually work. But, it’s deeply insightful about what these people are trying to do and the different ways they go about it.”
Clark chose not to attend, but OBJ.social did run into one of his friends, Russell Mills, the outgoing board chair of the National Capital Commission. He rather enjoyed the production and said he’ll recommend it to the former PM when they next see each other at the Rideau Club.
“I thought it was cleverly done,” said Mills.
Theatre artist Adrienne Wong, who sits on the GCTC board of directors, was too young in the late 1970s to fully understand the political climate of the country. The play mixes factual information with fictional conversations, resulting in a story that’s fast and loose with the truth. “It felt as though a legend from my childhood has been explained – by a crazy, funny uncle,” she analogized.
Wong found it fascinating to look back at Canadian politics through the playwright’s perspective. 1979 features famous political figures Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper and, of course, Joe Clark, who emerges as the young and idealistic hero of the story.
“We feel like our history is so boring but this is really exciting; it’s interesting, and it’s interesting the way it’s spun here, and this idea of principles versus politics versus policy, and the idealism that makes some people want to get into politics and make change, but then you’re faced with that world which is very different,” said Wong.
The play, which is a co-production with the Shaw Festival, is Healey’s second foray into political theatre. His first, Proud, focused on a Stephen Harper-like prime minister. What attracts him to the genre, he said, are the high-stakes politics, where compromise, integrity and principles are called into question.
“I find it’s inherently dramatic and inherently comedic,” he told OBJ.social.
The evening kicked off with an upbeat moment that saw Ottawa-raised actor Raoul Bhaneja honoured for his achievement in artistic excellence. His contributions to local theatre have included his one-man version of Hamlet to raise funds for the theatre company’s Shannon Reynolds Endowment Fund. It supports the creation, development or production of new Canadian work, with an emphasis on female voices.
The graduate of Canterbury High School and the National Theatre School gave a special shout out to his parents for allowing him in his youth to hop on a bus to the GCTC, back when it was on Gladstone Avenue, to watch and learn about Canadian theatre.
There’s now a plaque in his name on theatre seat E13. The seat donation was made possible by patrons Lewis Auerbach and Barbara Legowski while his name was chosen by a selection committee.
The play runs at the GCTC until April 30.