Christopher Hunt as John Crosbie and Philip Riccio as Joe Clark in the world premiere production of 1979 by Michael Healey. (Benjamin Laird)
Justin Trudeaumaniacs notwithstanding, the answer is actually Joe Clark, who was 39 (and 364 days) when he took over the top chair in Canadian politics on June 4, 1979 – which somewhat sadly, but not quite tragically – he maintained until he was, well, 40.
1979 is also the title of Governor General Award-winning playwright Michael Healey’s new hit-and-miss comedy, which explores a night unlike any other in the life of Joe Clark, when a decent, honourable, thoughtful – and woefully naive – politician punted away his prime ministership on third and inches.
That’s the night we discover Joe (Philip Riccio, nicely channelling Joe, brown corduroy suit and all) in his office as he awaits the parliamentary vote he – and we – know is destined to doom him.
That evening, Joe is visited by a veritable hall of fame of 1970s Canadian political boldfaced names, including finance minister John Crosbie (Christopher Hunt, no relation), foreign minister Flora MacDonald (Hunt again, in the Ottawa equivalent of drag), former prime minister Pierre Trudeau (Hunt), Joe’s wife, Maureen McTeer (Jamie Konchak, channelling Naomi Klein), aspiring Conservative candidate Brian Mulroney (Konchak, oozing Westmount charm offensive), and a nobody courier who happens to be young Stephen Harper (Konchak again, oozing conservatism).
Every one of them has sound political advice for hapless-but-sincere Joe, determined to stick to his principles, even if it means triggering an election everyone but him knows is a bad idea.
1979 is fun to watch unfold if you’re a Canadian political junkie of a certain age. At the same time, it’s a bit of a dramatic hole that Healey has dug for himself, because we all know how it ends, don’t we?
What Healey and director/dramaturge Miles Potter have devised in 1979 is the stage equivalent of a good bar story, complete with too-broad comedic strokes, program notes that unspool on a screen giving us the (frequently funny) political backstory, wobbly sketch comedy that misses more than it lands, all of it piled atop some genuinely moving, sincerely funny – and fun – writing about Canadian life in politics.
In Healey and director Potter’s hands, Crosbie – one of the wittiest Canadian politicians to stand up in the House of Commons – becomes a slapstick finance minister, practically doing a “Who’s On First” routine of farcical entrances and exits.
MacDonald, who very nearly became the first female Canadian PM, is the focus of 1979’s subplot, which audiences will recognize as the plot to the Oscar-winning Ben Affleck film, Argo – a story that’s one of the most audacious, exhilarating, and successful Canadian foreign-affairs schemes ever hatched, but which gets somewhat shortchanged here. (Clearly what Clark – and Flora – lacked was any worthwhile social media influencers, because the Iran hostage escape was pure Canadian political heroism at its best.)
On the other hand, Healey and Hunt do a superb job conjuring Trudeau, who has been defeated, resigned as leader, and is simply biding his time until the next Liberal leader can be elected. Then Clark implodes, eliciting an epiphany in Trudeau that leads to a series of decisions that transform his legacy from wealthy political boy band member into a historic statesman who probably ought to be on the money.
Healey is the author of The Drawer Boy, arguably on a very short list of the greatest Canadian plays ever written – and is at his best channelling Trudeau, when 1979 becomes a thrill to watch.
As fine as the Trudeau sequence is, the big moment is reserved for a fictional imagining of a scene between a young Stephen Harper and doomed Joe, as the bells ring to summon him to the House for the fateful vote on Crosbie’s budget.
Rather than meeting the moment, Clark allows the youthful Harper to deliver a numbingly sincere 15-minute almost-monologue that rings true on a certain (political, historical) level, but also proves one other thing (on a theatrical level): if you’re going to channel politicians onstage, better channel fun ones – particularly in the penultimate scenes of your story.