Mary-Ellen Field was once the business manager of Australian supermodel, Elle Macpherson. That tenure allegedly came to an end in 2005, when Macpherson accused Field of leaking stories to the tabloids regarding the breakdown of her relationship with Arpad Busson. Stories of alcoholism were circulated.

The truth, in fact, was far more disturbing. The pair had become the victims of hacking by journalists at tabloid newspaper giant, The News of the World. This was the scandal that led to a £5.4 million judicial inquiry – the Leveson Inquiry – and ultimately saw the tabloid close up shop, as well as the publication’s managing editor, chief reporter and news editor all being convicted of criminal offences and sent to jail.

But Field has another claim to fame. In May 2013, it was revealed she had donated her kidney to veteran Australian journalist, Mark Colvin, who she had come to know through phone interviews about the hacking scandal. Colvin had contracted a virus while reporting in Rwanda in 1994 and, as a result, suffered severe kidney damage. Prior to the transplant operation, he was being kept alive by regular dialysis sessions. He was on the waiting list for a donor kidney, but a rare blood type meant the odds of finding a match were bleak.

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Helen Thomson and Sarah Peirse in Mark Colvin’s Kidney (Photo by Brett Boardman)

When Field offered to donate her kidney, Colvin initially refused. It took significant efforts by Field to wear him down, and when he eventually agreed to accept the kidney, tests revealed the two were as ideal a match as was virtually conceivable. The subsequent operation was successful and, at 64, Colvin is now in his 20th year presenting PM, one of ABC radio’s flagship news and current affairs programs.

Award-winning playwright and screenwriter Tommy Murphy (Holding the man, Strangers in between and Gwen in Purgatory) is the man behind the play that tells the truly remarkable story of how a London-based business consultant came to save the life of an Australian journalist. In Mark Colvin’s Kidney, we follow Field (Sarah Peirse) from the time of her parting ways with Macpherson, to her efforts to clear her name once details of the phone hacking scandal began to emerge, and to her unwavering resolve to become an organ donor for Colvin, despite the understandable efforts of her husband (Peter Carroll) to dissuade her from gambling with her own health.

The events that unfold here are genuinely stranger than fiction. It’s a fascinating story that causes you to reflect on so many questions: what drives someone to decide to donate a vital organ to a person on the other side of the world who they’ve only come to know through phone and text message exchanges? How could someone go through with such life-altering surgery in that circumstance, despite the significant risk to their own life? And how does it come to be that the donor just happens to be a better match for the recipient than their closest family members?  Additionally, issues of privacy – and the boundaries that govern it – are raised.

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Sarah Peirse and Peter Carroll in Mark Colvin’s Kidney (Photo by Brett Boardman)

Peirse is tremendous as Field. She engages from the outset as the maligned business manager, who has the rug swiftly swept from beneath her. Field’s is a compelling journey as she battles to clear her name and finds herself drawn into the life-threatening struggles of a stranger, and Peirse’s Field feels real – flawed, resolute and absolutely admirable. Carroll is in superb form as Field’s husband, giving a performance that balances and grounds the couple’s lives in practical realities. Howard eventually convinces in his portrayal of Colvin, but there was a tentativeness in his performance in the first act on opening night (there were moments where it did feel, in fact, as though perhaps the cast as a whole needed further rehearsal prior to opening night). That tentativeness had disappeared by the start of the second half, making Howard’s performance in the show’s later moments far more impactful. Rounding out the cast, Helen Thomson, Kit Esuruoso and Chistopher Stollery were wonderful, each taking on a number of supporting roles.

Director David Berthold has made many smart choices for this production. His choice to stage conversations actually conducted via email or telephone as straight-forward face-to-face interactions (accompanied by simple projections to signpost the actual nature of those exchanges) feels very much the correct decision. As an essential component of Michael Hankin’s excellent set, projections are selectively used throughout the performance to great effect, and scene changes are generally slick and well executed.

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John Howard in Mark Colvin’s Kidney (Photo by Brett Boardman)

However, something that’s difficult (if not impossible) for Berthold to overcome is the abundance of story to tell in Murphy’s text. There’s so much action occurring over an extended timeline that has been interwoven into the script. There’s the playing out of Field’s downfall followed by her subsequent efforts to have her voice heard, Colvin’s protracted battle with kidney disease (and several allusions to the wartime reporting that led to his predicament) and then the back-and-forth that led to Field’s decision to donate. And while many of the details of the story are astonishing, how much of that should have been – or needed to be – incorporated into this piece is arguable. It does feel as though there’s room here to trim the 150-minute work into a tighter 90-100-minute offering that’s narrower, but clearer, in focus.

Despite that need for a tightened structure, Mark Colvin’s Kidney is entertaining as is because of the nature of the central details of the story. They are at once grandiose and deeply personal. It’s a stark reminder of events in recent history that reinforced the very ugly behaviour of which news media organisations (and those who run them) have been guilty. But simultaneously, it’s also a reminder of the truly astonishing acts of kindness of which human beings are capable.

 

MARK COLVIN’S KIDNEY – SEASON DETAILS

Runs until 2 April 2017
Upstairs Theatre – Belvoir St Theatre (25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills NSW 2010)

Captions 2pm 25 March
Unwaged 2pm 30 March
Audio–described 2pm 1 April

Tickets* Full $72, Senior $62, Conces. $49 Previews $40
* Ticket prices can be dynamically adjusted, either up or down, based on real-time market demand, and without notice.
Box Office 02 9699 3444 or online at belvoir.com.au

Mark Colvin’s Kidney transfers to Parramatta Riverside 5-8 April 2017

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