Maggie and Pierre, Finborough Theatre

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It’s easy to see why Justin Trudeau is one of the darlings of world politics these days. This charming former teacher, actor and advocate, turning to politics after his father’s death, identifies as a feminist, wants to legalise marijuana, is pro-choice, gay friendly and committed to the rights of the First Nations and other minorities. Canada’s liberal prime minister attracts groups of screaming fans wherever he goes both nationally and internationally, like any pop star. But where did these attributes come from?

His parents. Maggie and Pierre Trudeau, who met whilst holidaying in Tahiti in the ‘60s when she was a mere 18 years old, were THE Canadian celebrity couple of the 1970s. Pierre was, like his son after him, the prime minister of Canada. Their relationship was flawed, though. Maggie, young, free-spirited and bipolar, soon felt trapped by family life as her intellectual husband busied himself with work. The press’s constant presence also took its toll on their relationship, which the public then poured over in microscopic detail. In 1979, Linda Griffiths’ and Paul Thompson’s Maggie and Pierre premiers, a solo performance tribute to this enigmatic couple. It runs off and on for many subsequent years, a testament to the pair’s appeal.

The script feels quite contemporary, but other than for the purpose of historical documentary, its purpose isn’t clear all these years later. Though the two meet, fall in love and navigate their relationship, life in the spotlight, and the press, there’s no overriding message. It’s unclear why this story needs to be told. It’s a solid narrative over many years with moving insight into these historical figures, but the social and political commentary are limited to brief reflection on their relationship with the press. Perhaps this play would be more satisfying to Canadians or those that already know of the Trudeaus, but for audiences that have never before heard of this couple, there is little impact. It reads like an autobiography. Outstandingly performed by Kelly Burke and worth seeing for her intricate work alone, there’s the feeling that without her, the play would be disappointing.

Burke plays Pierre, Maggie and journalist Henry whose career has hinged on his reporting of their every move. Even though director Eduard Lewis incorporates numerous costume changes to signify a character change, Burke’s physical and vocal mannerisms completely transform into each respective character. It’s a wholly compelling process, a masterclass in performance. Her energy and commitment never falters and her presence is magnetic.

Designer Sarah Booth’s set is simple, but a confusing mix of abstract and functional elements. A huge, bright red quilt with Pierre’s slogan takes up half the stage and is only referred to once, near the end. Its visual dominance is impossible to ignore but it has hardly any bearing on the story. However, Booth’s creation of a bed that’s revealed from a nondescript cupboard is a great device. Philip Matejtschuk’s composition and sound design adds further depth, emotion and context that the set avoids, giving the show a more rounded, polished feel.

As a documentary artefact, Maggie and Pierre is no doubt a learning experience. The couple’s history is an interesting one and the love story is universally relatable. Kelly Burke’s performance is a wondrous thing to experience though, and more than redeems any of the production’s inadequacies.

Maggie and Pierre runs through 5 July.

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