Interview with writer Tommy Murphy

Drill Hall, Mullumbimby Friday 28 Sep till Sunday 14 October Q & A with Tommy Murphy Sunday September 30

Mark Colvin’s Kidney – Drill Hall Theatre Company

The woman who gave Mark Colvin her kidney

Writer Tommy Murphy has penned an extraordinary piece of theatre that tells the story of an unlikely friendship between ABC journalist Mark Colvin and Mary-Ellen Field, an intellectual-property expert and Elle McPherson brand manager whose career was ruined by the phone-hacking scandal. This is the story of how a journalist who struggled for more than 20 years with a rare auto-immune disease he contracted while on assignment in Rwanda ended up with a kidney. The Echo spoke with Tommy about the play he wrote that is to be staged at The Drill Hall Theatre.

What was it about the story of Mary-Ellen Field that caught your attention? Are flawed characters more interesting to write? Is it her journey that interested you most?

That it is so very surprising. It’s at times funny and also heart-wrenching.

Mary-Ellen is an Australian who had built a very successful career in the UK. She was a leading IP expert and business adviser to some very high-ranking companies and individuals. It was all ripped away from her because of phone hacking. She was accused of leaking to the tabloids. She set about trying to rebuild but her reputation was shattered. She could have sought revenge – in fact at first she did – but she arrives at a different place via a beautiful connection. That connection happens via Twitter; that’s one of the strange symmetries in this story. Technology can be used to intrude and hack but it also enables previously unimaginable connections from across the globe. It brings us closer. Mary-Ellen Field’s true story caught my attention because, despite its strange elements, it seemed to have a unified story arc of dramatic change.

This seems to be a story about betrayal and redemption. How important are these themes in MCK?

Exactly. Mary-Ellen finds that all the structures she trusted such as the law, the press, and even the trustworthiness of business people around her all falter. She’s used to calling the shots and ordering people around. She’s a card-carrying Tory and believes in the powers that be. But she’s rocked by the cruelty she encounters. She discovers that she can’t control the actions of others. She restores a bit of kindness to the world via her own deeds.

How much of the ‘real’ story do you tell in your play?

Mark Colvin’s Kidney is a play based on real events and its subject matter is journalistic integrity, so we try to stick to the facts. When we have to depart for the purposes of constructing a good scene for the stage we have fun declaring it. It’s all pretty honest I think.

I know that Mary-Ellen donated her kidney to Mark Colvin. How did this come to pass?

Well, that’s the play. They met via Twitter. She was effectively a stranger but when he helped her tell her story via a radio interview they embarked on a deep friendship. Mary-Ellen had a kind of spiritual certainty that she was destined to save Mark. In fact, she hoped that all her travails were necessary to lead to their fateful meeting and her special gift. Mark, an atheist, a stoic, saw that as nonsense. She had to work hard to convince him to let her save his life. And he had a journalistic principle not to accept a gift from an interviewee. He even met with the ABC to check he wasn’t betraying the code of conduct. This was a man of absolute integrity. He would die for his principles, especially if he thought another person was going to suffer for his benefit.

Do you think it was significant that a woman who had her phone tapped by reporters should end up giving her kidney to one (well an ethical one!)?

Absolutely. She’s the victim of the ills of journalism via phone hacking but Mary-Ellen Field set about prolonging the life and easing the suffering of one of journalism’s greats: Mark Colvin. Mark was the one-time intrepid foreign correspondent who contracted chronic illness doing his job. Despite the immense pain and daily struggle he didn’t cease. He became host of the ABC radio’s PM program, where he remained for two decades.

How did Mark Colvin’s death impact on the weight of this story?

Mary-Ellen gave him the kidney knowing that he was desperately ill. If it granted Mark an extra month that would have been a bonus. He gained another five years. He returned to work. He interviewed many a politician and covered all the broad range of subjects on PM. He wrote a book. And he got half a decade more to be a father to his son. Mark’s death came too soon. I hope this play is one of the ways we can pay tribute to a ‘giant’ and introduce his character to those who might not know of him. That’s how he was described in parliament: a giant.

What about Mark Colvin and Mary-Ellen Field; what was their attitude towards this piece?

They were extremely generous in their assistance in my research but they refused to read the play before they saw it. They told me they didn’t want to interfere. That’s brave, I thought, and tried to convince them otherwise. They saw the play together in Sydney and were at times the loudest laughers in the house. They’ve both been huge supporters and I couldn’t be more grateful – especially for letting me write it warts and all.

What should we expect for the staging at the Drill Hall?

From what I know, you can expect a very fine production from an extremely dedicated team. I’ve seen the designs of the set, which looks stunning and inventive. The director John Rado and producer Peter Gough have been champions. I can’t wait to see it myself. I’m coming up for a Q&A on Sunday 30 September. I can’t wait!

Mark Colvin’s Kidney will be performed at the Drill Hall, Mullumbimby.

Sunday 30 September with Special Q&A with the writer, Tommy Murphy. Friday 28 Sep till Sunday 14 October.

Tix at the Mullum Bookshop or at

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