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Playwright Tommy Murphy Hacks Reality For His New Play, Mark Colvin's Kidney

20 February 2017 | 2:45 pm | Maxim Boon

"The only thing you can do when the world feels morally corrupt is take charge of your own actions."

Playwright Tommy Murphy is a master of charting the intimate on stage for the purpose of revealing the bigger picture. Whether it be in his landmark adaptation of Timothy Conigrave's heartbreaking memoir Holding The Man, in his study of brotherhood and belonging Strangers In Between, or Saturn's Return, exploring one woman's struggle with the ennui of settling down, Murphy's canon speaks to a keen aptitude for excavating the universal from the deeply personal.

His characters, while dealing with struggles unique to themselves, are often of the everyman type, but Murphy's most recent play, while no less intimately alert, is something of a departure, exchanging the relatable for the peculiar. Mark Colvin's Kidney tells the remarkable true story of Mary-Ellen Field, whom Murphy describes as "an utterly unique person, unlike anyone I've ever known." The Australian business woman's life was derailed by a scandal, which in turn set off a chain of events that eventually led to her donating a kidney to the gravely ill ABC Radio National anchor Mark Colvin.

It's a synopsis that might not immediately reveal itself as ripe for a stage adaptation, but despite its specificity, Murphy has characteristically sought out the most accessible entry points of this narrative in decoding it for the theatre. "One of the things that drew me to Mary-Ellen Field's story is the question, would I do what she did? Probably not, but I hope the play poses that question to the audience. Would you do what Mary-Ellen did? And the way that she behaved and her choice of actions - were they the right ones? It's really a very human story about morality," Murphy shares. "There's a lot about honesty too, so it feels like really good timing in our post-truth age to be telling a story about a woman who is trying to correct falsehoods. The play itself is an expression of that, because it is a true story. So, at the heart of this production is a narrative about righting wrongs and the importance of integrity, which feels pretty significant at the moment."

"The only thing you can do when the world feels morally corrupt is take charge of your own actions."

It's also a narrative of juicy celebrity gossip and sleazy tabloid hackery. In 2005, when details of supermodel Elle Macpherson's marital troubles found their way into the News Of The World, Mary-Ellen Field, Macpherson's business advisor at the time, was accused of selling out her clients. At Macpherson's inexplicable urging, Field was railroaded into checking into a rehab facility to tackle a drinking problem she didn't have. It would destroy her reputation and cause her life as she knew it to fall apart.

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Suspicions of her disloyalty were eventually proven to be unfounded in 2010, when the revelations of the Leveson Inquiry showed phone hackers, on the payroll of the red-top publishers, had covertly pillaged the voicemails of McPherson and many other notable public figures. Field would go on to testify at the Inquiry, but attempts to sue newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch over the damage to her professional and personal life would be ultimately fruitless. However, during this living nightmare Field was championed and supported by several journalists who shared her vitriol at the unscrupulous actions of the tabloid press. Among them was Mark Colvin, who at the time was on dialysis. Completely unsolicited and without ever having met the veteran ABC reporter, Field would make a gesture of astonishing altruism in offering Colvin one of her kidneys.

This amazing act of generosity is a stark foil within the play, counterpointing the moral vacuum of the tabloid writers behind the phone hacking scandal, Murphy explains: "There are a lot of ethical puzzles in this story, and I think any stories that deal with journalism invite questions about how we judge right and wrong; a journalist's daily job is innately anchored to their principles and a code of behaviour, but those values won't always be the same as our own."

Directed by his long-time collaborator, Brisbane Festival chief David Berthold, and starring Sarah Peirse as Mary-Ellen Field and John Howard as Mark Colvin, Murphy's play has also found a number of resonances with the zeitgeist politics of President Trump and the erosion of values once enshrined in the attitudes of our leaders. "What do we do when we start to feel that the entire world might be morally corrupt? What do we do when structures we trusted cease to be as they were, whether they be in the press or politics or even the decency of people around us day to day? Mary-Ellen is faced with these issues," Murphy observes. "She is extremely capable, a successful businesswoman with an incredibly impressive career, but she trusts all of those things and her place within the establishment as something she can rely on. But in fact, those things fail her, which begins this terrible sequence of events. At the same time, we find these really surprising triumphs emerging as she wrestles with those injustices. She discovers that the only thing you can do when the world feels morally bankrupt is take charge of your own actions. And that's exactly what she does."

Belvoir Street Theatre presents Tommy Murphy's Mark Colvin's Kidney25 Feb — 2 Apr.