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Up Close and Personal with Tommy Murphy

Belvoir’s production of Mark Colvin’s Kidney will be presented at Riverside in early April following its premiere season in Surry Hills. Directed by David Berthold, the current director of Brisbane Festival and written by one of Australia’s much loved playwrights, Tommy Murphy, this is a theatre experience not to be missed.

Tommy Murphy is best known for his internationally successful play Holding the Man, an adaptation of Tim Conigrave’s bestselling memoir by the same name, which was later adapted for the big screen. Riverside audiences were first introduced to Murphy’s work in 2006 with the Griffin Theatre Company production of Strangers In Between. Both of these plays won Murphy the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Best Play in successive years. He has continued to win awards and write plays for Sydney Theatre Company, Australian Theatre for Young People, Belvoir and La Boite Theatre Company amongst others. He has also written for screen including teleplays Offspring and Spirited.

We chatted with Tommy about his career and his latest endeavour, Mark Colvin’s Kidney. Here’s what he had to say.

RS: You have partnered with director David Berthold numerous times. What is your creative connection and what makes you such a great team?

TM: Honesty. He knows when I’m bullshitting. He urges me to do better. He was my mentor and then I grew up and we became collaborators. Decades of creative problem-solving together is a handy thing. People often call that sort of thing ‘shorthand’. Not sure that’s accurate for us; we talk at such length. There’s just a lovely confidence in the combination of us that we will (probably) overcome a creative impasse. Hey, we get stuff way wrong sometimes but we’re never daunted by saying ‘that’s not working; lets’ fix it’. And I know, even as soon as David inhales whether a solution has worked. He might pick up his pencil and I think ‘yeah I don’t see it yet but whatever he’s circled or crossed out there means he’s spotted something that needs a rethink’. And he lets me do that same with him. We include each other in the decision making and trust each other to find solutions. And it’s always enjoyable.

RS: Mark Colvin’s Kidney has its starting point in a true story. What got your attention about this story and made you want to write a play about it?

TM: ‘Find a play that is global and local’ was the task set by Belvoir 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 journalists. I shadowed him as he made his nightly radio current affairs program PM one afternoon. I knew instantly that there was a play in the offing.

RS: There are two main characters in the play – Mark and Mary-Ellen – both who are real people. Can you describe these two and what makes them so intriguing to write about and see brought to life on stage?

TM: Again, it’s those contracts and strange connections. Mary-Ellen has this spiritual certainty that she can save Mark’s life. She has to convince him to say yes to her offer. He’s a sceptic, both by nature and in his professional rigour. Claims of a sixth sense aren’t going to convince him. But, as you’ll see in the play something uncanny does happen.

It’s the story of the true believer who has all of her certainties called into question. Structures that Mary-Ellen held sacred fail her: the law, the press and even ethics in business. She redeems her humanity in such a curly way. I can’t say more – I’m giving it all away!

RS: This production has a stellar line-up of actors – Peter Carroll, Kit Esuruoso, John Howard, Sarah Peirse, Christopher Stollery and Helen Thomson – did you have involvement in their casting? Did you have any of them in mind when you were writing the play?

TM: The experience in the room is extraordinary. I don’t write with actors in mind because I write imagining the characters. And casting is always so unpredictable. But we really landed a beauty with this lot.

RS: When you interviewed journalists and others for your research, did anyone try to stop you writing the play or want to distance themselves from the story? e.g. Elle McPherson or Rupert Murdoch.

TM: One of the things this play is about is integrity, particularly integrity among journalists. So, it follows that we should be journalistic in our approach to making it.

We’ve all worked very hard to ensure that this play is anchored in fact. Much of the material is on the public record, particularly via the Leveson Inquiry into Phone Hacking.

Elle Macpherson’s phone was hacked by News of The World. Nobody denies that now. Mary-Ellen Field had left voicemails including very private details of Elle’s personal affairs. They eavesdropped on that and Mary-Ellen’s life fell apart because of the accusations that ensued. She was the collateral damage, as Lord Leveson noted.

When the phone hacking story first surfaced there was an obsession with the celebrity angle. Many were of the opinion that they live a life in the public eye and it’s therefore quid pro quo with the paparazzi. But there were others in ‘the celebrities’ orbit’, as Mark Colvin described it. Hacking had a wide, cruel impact on people including the likes of Mary-Ellen Field, who never sought fame or notoriety. And there’s the family of Milly Dowler, a murdered schoolgirl, or the families of terrorist victims.

RS: Why should audiences come to see Mark Colvin’s Kidney? What do you hope will be the take-away for them?

TM: At the very least a very satisfying and original new play. I think there’s also something deeper going on in this story about the way we connect, how we can be kind in a sometimes traumatic world. And perhaps it’s a story that helps us all brace for this new era of fake news.

See Tommy Murphy’s play ‘Mark Colvin’s Kidney’ at Riverside.

Wednesday 5 April at 7.30pm
Thursday 6 April at 7.30pm
Friday 7 April at 7.30pm
Saturday 8 April at 2.15pm & 7.30pm

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