Maggie and Pierre – Finborough Theatre, London

Writer: Linda Griffiths with Paul Thompson
Director: Eduard Lewis
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

In the UK, whatever they do in private and however radical their politics, we expect the private life of our Prime Minister to be beyond reproach; always someone with a stable marriage, raising a young family, the epitome of domestic values. In 1970s Canada, however, Pierre Trudeau married Margaret, a woman 29 years his junior and in the space of seven years their domestic instability – her frustration, bi-polar and wild lifestyle – was played out in front of the nation’s media. Maggie and Pierre is that story.

This one-woman show, first performed in 1979, only now receives its European premiere during a short run at the Finborough Theatre. The play itself is constructed in various ways, combining the emerging story of the Canadian Prime Minister and First Lady with the retrospective musings of a reporter known as Henry to give three perspectives. All performed by one actress and told as a series of headline episodes, it uses duologues playing both sides of the conversation, some scenes with multiple characters told from a single point of view and monologue reminiscences, all of which bring this world vividly to life.

Of all the characters performed by actress Kelly Burke, it is Maggie who is most strongly defined and whose struggle is charted most successfully. The audience meets her as a simpering teenager, girlishly wondering how she should behave and crucially we understand she is playing a role that isn’t her true self, something that will come to define her time as First Lady. Through the early, slightly star-struck, dates to her first signs of suffocation at the Governor General’s Ball, Burke creates a clear sense of a woman both out of her depth and completely caged-in. There is a pleasing frenzy to the role which builds from youthful excitement to virtual breakdown as her marriage and control disintegrate.

Less well-defined in both the writing and performance are the two male characters, Pierre and Henry, so occasionally it’s not entirely clear which one is speaking. They begin slightly more distinct but gradually merge acting as reflections of societal expectation against which Maggie’s behaviour is judged rather than characters in their own right. Pierre, in particular, is difficult to fathom and as a true politician we never really know what drives him. The seemingly radical decision for an incumbent Prime Minister to marry a very young girl and how he responds to her declining state is not fully explored, and he seems throughout, perhaps deliberately, as a cold and remote figure entirely divorced from his own life.

Maggie and Pierre is well staged by director Eduard Lewis in a very small space, taking advantage of numerous onstage costume changes to move between the three protagonists, as well as utilising Ben Jacobs thoughtful lighting design to pinpoint moments of drama and poignancy. It does begin to drag towards the end and the gist of several scenes feels superfluous because the audience has already got the measure of Maggie several episodes earlier, but it is a hard-working and impressive performance from Burke that maintains momentum.

In an era in which politicians live their lives in the open, we still create myths around them and set expectations of behaviour. Their world is one of constant performance and conformity that only makes a public fall from grace more likely and more widely reported. The pressure of being in a senior position and how overwhelming that can be for a fragile individual is clear in Maggie and Pierre, as well as the continued fascination with this story given a new lease of life by the 2015 election of their son as the current Prime Minister of Canada.

Runs until5July 2016 | Image:Ashley Carter

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