Saturday, December 6, 2008

Political Theatre (and Theatre Politics)

I had initially intended, with this post, to focus on more explicitly performance-related (i.e., theatre-related) topics, but it's been two weeks of high drama on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and so politics once again intrudes.

As any sentient being in the country well knows, Canadians have just passed through a constitutional crisis unprecedented in our history, one that has unfortunately resulted in an even bigger, and potentially more dangerous, procedural precedent being set, and that has seen Prime Minister Stephen Harper narrowly--and temporarily--retain power in a manner that, to turn his own language back upon him, is an egregious affront to democracy. 

It all started with a high-stakes game of political brinksmanship following the passing of the minority Conservative government's throne speech less than a month ago. Despite a chastened Harper's professed statement that his party would adopt a new spirit of cooperation in the House of Commons following his failure to win a desperately sought after majority in last October's election, the week after the throne speech (which the other parties voted to support), Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivered an economic update that bore all the classic hallmarks of the PMO's mean-spirited, hit-them-when-they're-down approach to politics. Specifically, the Conservatives, in addition to fudging the numbers to make it look like Canada actually was heading into a potentially debilitating global recession with a small surplus rather than needing to worry just yet about deficit spending on infrastructure in order to stimulate the economy, proposed as one of their cost-cutting measures the elimination of public-financing for federal political parties. This financing, brought in by the Liberals under Jean Chretien, is based on a formula that sees all registered parties fielding federal candidates receiving a percentage of taxpayers' money based on the number of votes they captured in the last election. The Conservatives have the highest percentage of private and corporate donations among any of the major parties, and so don't really need the additional public financing. But the Liberals, still struggling to pay off lingering debt following a series of costly leadership contests, and having seen their fundraising abilities plummet alongside their approval ratings, very much need this money to remain competitive in any upcoming election. Ditto the NDP and the Greens, who especially as smaller, more-left of centre parties that appeal to an electoral base that doesn't have as deep pockets as the core Conservative constituency, rely on this money to field candidates and run ads and pay staff and criss-cross the largest country on the planet. With the Bloc Quebecois things are a bit more complicated, because as a party that campaigns solely in one province, they are less beholden on money to cover major travel expenses etc. No doubt Harper was counting on public outrage at the BQ, a party committed to the breakup of the country in his lingo, receiving taxpayers money at all (more on Harper's BQ-bashing in a bit).

As I mentioned earlier, this is classic Harper political strategy: basically, use every opportunity you get to crush your opponents into the ground. But the would-be autocrat's mistake was that he forgot he didn't have a majority. No doubt he was relying on the fact that the Liberals, with a lame-duck leader, Stephane Dion, who had led his party to its worst electoral showing in several decades, and a convention to choose his replacement not scheduled till May 2009, would cave once again, and he would get his way, thereby ensuring Conservative party dominance for some time to come. But this time the Liberals didn't blink, and neither did the NDP or the Bloc. Instead, they got together and formed a Liberal-NDP coalition, with Bloc support, and declared their intention of bringing down the government in a non-confidence vote on Flaherty's economic update. 

While coalition governments in Canada, unlike in many European parliamentary systems, are rare, they are not unprecedented. And this proposed coalition was counting on the fact that, the country having so recently been to the polls, this parliamentary session being so young, and with no perceived direction regarding the economy, the Governor-General would seriously consider calling on them to form a government rather than acceding to Harper's likely wish for her to dissolve parliament and call another election. Time for the Conservatives to blink.

And blink they did, quickly postponing by a week the confidence vote, and withdrawing from what was to be voted on the controversial removal of public party financing, as well as another bone of contention for the opposition parties, the removal of the right to strike by public sector employees. They also agreed to move up the date of a proposed budget that would see a major economic stimulus package. But the coalition was not backing down, and with everyone apparently (and fatally, as it turned out) rallied behind the resurrected Dion as replacement Prime Minister, it was time for Harper to really sweat.

Which brings us to the truly appalling part of this mess. For, when Harper is cornered it is not his habit to show any humility or adopt a statesmanlike persona and own up to his mistakes; instead, he goes on the attack, in this case accusing the "unelected" coalition (somebody voted for them) of trying to hijack leadership of the government undemocratically, a desperate power grab that sees the Liberals willing, in these trying economic times (suddenly we go from a surplus to utter doom), to get into bed with "socialists" and "separatists." All of this was a lie, of course; a parliamentary system is all about having a viable opposition, and our constitution allows for another party or parties to have the opportunity to form a government (at the G-G's discretion) should the governing party lose the confidence of the House. And the Bloc were not part of the coalition, but rather agreed to support it for a fixed period of time. (Indeed, Harper and the Conservatives had themselves previously strategized about working with the Bloc to defeat Paul Martin's minority liberal government back in 2005.) But Harper has a habit of playing fast and loose with the truth, and appealing instead to the emotions of his core base, most of whom fastened on to the Dion-Bloc alliance as anathema. 

With a media blitz ensuring that public support (especially in the west) was firmly behind him, Harper then played the only card left to him, choosing to run away from the fight rather than face the consequences of a loss of confidence in the House. Specifically, he asked the GG to prorogue, or temporarily suspend, parliament until January 26th, at which time a new throne speech would introduce a new budget. Constitutional experts weighed in on all sides, many saying that the GG, Michaelle Jean, shouldn't grant the request, as it sets that dangerous precedent that I mentioned at the outset of this post--what's to prevent all future governments from doing the same? Just shutting down the House because you might lose a vote is about as undemocratic as things get, Mr. Harper. At the same time, the GG was in an impossible situation, especially as a Liberal appointee from Quebec with a husband whom many accuse of having his own separatist ties. To defy Harper's wishes, and to go against public opinion would have opened her up to accusations of political interference, and potentially have lead to an even greater crisis. Still, the word is that Jean made Harper work for his request (he met with her for more than 2 hours).

Then, too, Harper could it seems count on the cracks within the coalition starting to form, and above all on the well-meaning but unfortunately grossly incompetent and inept Dion screwing up. Which he did royally (no pun intended, Madame GG) with his televised address to the nation trying to explain why a coalition was a viable option. Dion, who has never been the most articulate of politicians at the best of times (especially in English), forgot Marshall McLuhan's cardinal rule, that the medium is the message. In short, he was done in by poor production values, with an amateurishly cropped and out-of-focus 5-minute clip that arrived late to broadcast networks, and without a separate French-language version (in the end, they dubbed his voice).

And so we do find our way back to the performative after all, although this is hardly my preferred kind of political theatre. Nevertheless, the curtain has dropped for now, and Harper will get his second act. I predict that before that the coalition and the Liberals in particular will have their own entracte/contretemps, perhaps a little something from Julius Caesar, with the dump-Dion-sooner-rather-than-later chorus growing steadily and a leadership vote moved up from May. I suspect whoever wins that vote (Michael Ignatieff or Bob Rae) will quickly rethink the viability of the coalition, especially if he wants to seriously challenge the Conservatives in the next election. Which now Harper will be more emboldened to seek, based on the latest poll numbers. And while I refuse to cast him as the tragic hero in all of this, the one potential upside is that in classic hubristic fashion Harper may have forever scuttled his chances of achieving a majority by so alienating Quebeckers with his anti-separatist rhetoric (they themselves go to the polls provincially on Monday, and while there was initial fear that the Parti Quebecois would benefit from Harper's trash-talking, it appears Jean Charest's Liberals will win a third straight term, possibly a majority). The problem is that there's as much hubris on the other side and, as they did during the last leadership review that disastrously elected Dion as a compromise candidate, Ignatieff and Rae might, in refusing to put aside their enormous egos, further imperil their party. Et tu Brute?

Amidst all this madness, and despite Richard and my difficulty in tearing ourselves away from Peter Mansbridge and the sexy talking heads on the "At Issue" panel of the nightly newscast of CBC's The National, there has been some time for theatre. Most recently we went to see The Drowsy Chaperone, the Bob Martin/Don McKellar/Lisa Lambert/Greg Morrison musical that began as an improvised vignette at Martin's stag party in Toronto and eventually made its way to Broadway, where it won Tonys for Best Book and Best Original Score (though, oddly, given these awards, not Best Musical--that went to The Jersey Boys), among several others, in 2006--yet more evidence of stealth Canadians taking over the US's entertainment industry (you can have Celine Dion). It's a delightful bagatelle of a show-within-a-show, at once an affectionate parody of and homage to classic American musicals of the 20s and 30s, all presided over by the endearing Man in Chair, a show tune fanatic who prefers the wacky but predictable course of true love in musicals to the mundane, troubling reality of daily life. Jay Brazeau gave a wonderful performance as Man in Chair, and this production at the Vancouver Playhouse (the first independent production to be licensed post-Broadway and the ensuing national tour) was exuberantly and imaginatively staged. This was also Max Reimer's first production since assuming the helm at the Playhouse from Glynis Leyshon, and although he's a money-conscious populist, his work here (he directed as well) gives me hope that the institution might turn its programming around. 

It also confirms my opinion that Leyshon has been a major problem in terms of what I and others have bemoaned as poor programming at the Playhouse over the past several years. The first production of this season, for example, was her last (she and Reimer overlapped), and though Frost/Nixon came with the same impressive Broadway and Tony-winning pedigree as Drowsy, in this case the results were a disaster. Though, to be fair, it wasn't all Leyshon's fault. Her star, Len Cariou (of the original Sweeney Todd fame), was all over the place in his performance as Nixon, including dropping several lines, and the play itself is structurally very weak, relying on a clunky narrator/expositor device (for the politically amnesiac, I guess), and failing to exploit the full dramatic potential from its central David and Goliath conceit. Building up to the final payoff of Nixon's admission of guilt is one too-long tease, and when the moment does come, it's over in a manner of seconds. Perhaps with a titan like Frank Langella in the lead role this would all work, but my suspicion is that first-time playwright Peter Morgan (screenwriter of The Queen, with Helen Mirren) is more comfortable in the television and film idioms. So perhaps the just-released Ron Howard movie version is worth watching for comparison.

But, to allude to a point I raised in an earlier post that I have yet to explore more fully, I think there is a larger structural crisis at work here in the one-act play as a genre. I was also disappointed with the Arts Club production of Doubt back in September/October, and could not understand why it had received the Pulitzer for John Patrick Shanley. The idea is a good one, and the did-he-or-didn't he question at the core keeps us guessing, but there seems to me to be a failure of will in Shanley's unwillingness to explore the questions he raises about religion, sexuality and race, let along faith and doubt, to their full potential. And the lead character of the head nun is too broadly drawn, leading to scenery chewing. That's what happened with Gabrielle Rose in the production I saw. And, to judge from what I've seen of the upcoming movie preview (also directed by Shanley), that's what's on offer in Meryl Streep's performance as well.

Again, there's more to say here, and hopefully I'll continue this discussion in future posts (and get back to Christopher Shinn and Harley Granville Barker as well). But for now I must sign off--Amber Funk Barton and her new company, The Response, are performing her first full-length dance work, Risk, at the Firehall Arts Centre tonight, and Richard and I have tickets. Then it's off to New York next week for research at the NYPL (wink, wink) and theatre-going aplenty. A full report when I return.


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