Conspiracy by John Kiely, a La Mama production.
If I may write, for a moment, as an amateur theatregoer instead of pro critic, the questions I'd want to know before signing up for a night out at a biographical play -- or one tackling recent and/or contentious events -- would be these...
Firstly, I'd want to know if the play is tendentious. If the play is a character assassination or a tirade -- pro or con -- I don't think I could be bothered... unless it put a compelling case with strong new evidence. I'm equally uninterested in hagiographies. Conspiracy, i.e. Kiely's play, manages to be both and neither. It has a prosecutor chastising the judge for attempting to pervert the course of justice and a defence barrister singing his praises.
I'd also like to know if the playwright has the authority to tackle the material. Much is made of the fact that John Kiely was chief sub-editor at the Melbourne Herald when Murphy raided ASIO HQ and that Kiely was a deputy editor at The Age when the broadsheet was waging a war against Murphy, which more or less literally hounded the high court judge into an early grave.
There's no indication in the program (or the press notes) as to whether court transcripts were consulted in the creation of the play or not, or if any books (like Jenny Hocking's) were referenced. The factual holes in the script and the dramatic holes in the production didn't inspire much confidence in me. Most glaringly, the play refers to an incident in 1968 concerning the Australian Federal Police! I'm reasonably sure that the AFP didn't exist at all until the late 1970s.
I'd also want to know if Conspiracy would help me make up my mind about Murphy. (In a word, no. There's nothing new or world-shaking here.)
Above all, the thing I'd want to know is this: is Conspiracy a fair fight? The answer is a qualified "oh, yeah... s'pose so." Rather than siding with Murphy, or siding against him, Kiely opts to side against everyone! The media, ASIO, Murphy himself... all have a manic desire to have their own way... if I might misquote Andrew Peacock challenging Malcolm Fraser, who in turn was quoting Malcolm Fraser challenging John Gorton. (What goes around, comes around!) Fictional Age editor John Hunter (Dean Cartmel) just about froths at the mouth in his vendetta against Murphy. Ditto the ASIO spooks determined to nobble the man who dared interfere with their own secret hegemony. And Murphy (finely played by Kevin Summers, a law graduate no less) is painted as a kamikaze crusader.
That just leaves the production itself, which is imaginatively directed by Peta Coy. Without having seen the script, and without having been party to the machinations back stage, it's hard to know who is to blame for some of the gaping dramaturgical cracks. I'm unaware of any other plays penned by John Kiely, so it's easy to blame him... but perhaps the fault lines were worsened by a director keen to reduce the running time of the play. It's impossible to tell from outside.
Much is made in the play of John Hunter receiving a subpoena to appear at Murphy's trial. We even see him in the courtroom. But there's not a single word of his testimony presented. Another frustrating flaw -- which robs us of an opportunity to see Murphy's accusers and judge them for ourselves -- is the absence of testimony from NSW Chief Magistrate Clarrie Briese and from Judge Paul Flannery. Murphy was accused of attempting to influence both men when his "little mate" Morgan Ryan was on trial... for conspiracy.
A brief review of this play appeared in The Australian on Tuesday July 12. It's not on-line.
Conspiracy by John Kiely. Directed by Peta Coy. Designed by Sophie Woodward. Lighting design by Phoenix Bade. Sound by Henry Finn-Madin. With Kevin Summers as Lionel Murphy. A La Mama production. At the Carlton Courthouse, 349 Drummond Street, until July 17.