Review: Mark Colvin’s Kidney (play 2017)

Mark Colvin is a (real life) seasoned journalist for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and a large image of one of current his kidneys is projected onto the scenery at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre. However, the central character is not Colvin but Mary-Ellen Field played by Sarah Peirse. Field’s story is what pulls together this play about truth, technology, altruism and friendship.

An Australian living in London, in 2005 Mary-Ellen Field was a business adviser for supermodel (and fellow Australian) Elle Macpherson. Bizarrely her career was thrown into turmoil when Macpherson became convinced that Field was leaking private conversations to the press. Accused of being an alcoholic, Field was pressured into attending a rehab clinic in the US. It was only some years later that it came to light that the ‘leaks’ were actually due to UK tabloids hacking Macpherson’s voicemail.

Despite the intrinsic psychological horror of Mary-Ellen Field’s situation (essentially gaslighted into doubting her own integrity), Sarah Peirse portrays “M-E” (as she is mainly called in the play) as a witty and assertive woman, who perseveres despite her beliefs about society and law being upended by experience.

The slow-burn of the phone hacking scandal became more intense as Murdoch’s News International began making out-of-court settlements with celebrities (including Macpherson) often with strict non-disclosure clauses. In Australia, Colvin reporting on the scandal for the ABC began looking for an Australian angle to the story. Of course, Rupert Murdoch himself was a substantial Australian dimension, but Colvin learnt of M-E’s experience and sought an interview with her.

The play uses clever positioning of the characters to show the conversations as natural dialogue while using projections on the scenery to clarify what was tweets, SMS or emails between the two protagonists.

Interspersed with M-E’s story, we learn more about Colvin (played by veteran actor John Howard – no not THAT John Howard). While M-E is speaking on the London Underground, we see that Colvin is in hospital undergoing dialysis. Between conversations, we also see in fragmented flashbacks, parts of his career as a foreign correspondent for the ABC – specifically his time covering the Iranian revolution and then later the Rwandan genocide.

It was in Rwanda (in reality) that Colvin contracted a rare disease leading to the progressive failure of his kidneys.

The second act shifts focus from the phone hacking scandal to the titular theme of the play. M-E, partly vindicated by the Leveson inquiry but now trapped in legal action against News International, decides to do something extraordinary. Having befriended (but not actually met in person) Colvin, she decides to donate one of her kidneys. Colvin rejects the offer, but as his health rapidly deteriorates due to septicemia, he eventually relents.

The question of M-E’s motives (pure altruism, friendship or a mechanism for gaining control and reshaping her life as something other than a victim) shapes the second act. With surgeons, psychologist, and M-E’s husband all struggling to understand why M-E is making this offer of a kidney.

The play is actually very funny, only lightly fictionalised (with projected text often adding the references to specific documents) it makes use of the main protagonists dry wit in the face of adversity. The sheer number of threads and themes do lead to a feeling that by the end of too many loose ends but this is the nature of a true story. Not everything gets neatly resolved.

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