2012 Edmonton Village of the Fringed Fringe Festival Review: Power: J.S Woodsworth & W.L Mackenzie King

In 1925, the Liberals found themselves with only 99 seats (this used to be considered a disaster for the party), and the Prime Minister (William "Lying" Mackenzie King) lost his seat.

Perhaps inexplicably for the modern eyes, King lost his seat and his election and just decided to continue on as Prime Minister. The problem of course is that eventually Parliament was going to get around to voting, and King was going to lose a vote of non-confidence unless he got some of the other parties on-side.

Enter J.S. Woodsworth -- leader of the Independent Labour Party (which ended up forming both the NDP and the Communist Party of Canada, not that the distinction is particularly important). Woodsworth wrote to both the Labour and Conservative leaders demanding an expansion to the welfare state in return for his support. In response, King invited Woodsworth to dinner to discuss the letter.

Which is where we come in with Power: J.S Woodsworth & W.L Mackenzie King, a play that dramatizes the meeting between the two men. Okay, that phrase isn't entirely accurate, let me try it again.

A play that uses the excuse of a meeting with the two men to lay it on thick with political propaganda. Yes, that seems more in line with what I saw.

I understand that to a certain extent the two men have to explain their histories and their circumstances to the audience in a play like this: because there's no external character who needs to have things explained to them, the two men have to act as if they've never heard of each other despite both being long-standing members in the House of Commons. This doesn't, however, excuse why each of them sounds less like a human being sitting in a meeting with each other and more like a politician out on a stump speech reading his Wikipedia page.

So that's the quick play summary. I could really just end this review right here. Whenever we see two politicians talking to each other in a mix of candour and false candour the play works, the Yes Minister trappings working very well here (it helps too that the actor playing King looks less like King and more like Sir Mark Spencer who convinced Jim Hacker to 'betray' Sir Humphrey by using discoveries of government waste as a way to further cut spending). The best line in the play comes early when Woodsworth tells King he doesn't want to force the Liberals to go against their principles: only force them to act upon them. The play falls apart when the two are less jockeying for position and more going into detail about their life experiences and what their "life's work" has been: I think the final tally was that King's "life's work" was 7 different things to Woodsworth's 3. It literally got to the point that every time King mentioned anew what he has "dedicated his whole life to" I let out a massive fart. The venue was pretty smelly by the time the play ended.

The propaganda, of course, was laid on pretty thick: the director ran for the Green Party in 2011, if that gives you a hint as to how far from reality the people backstage for this play really were. They try desperately to make Woodsworth and King's arguments relevant to the present: "the Tory always believes ________ and does ______ and always will", "industry must change to become more democratic", etc. Unfortunately for them, we don't live in 1925. We live decidedly in 2012, and the reality of the last 75 years was that the "progressive" pro-union world of these two men (Woodsworth the bigger offender here) was a disaster: an ever expanding house of cards requiring a bigger and more intrusive government to keep the whole thing afloat. The two men sneer at Meighan, but it turns out perpetually high unemployment and loss of job opportunities for young or inexperienced workers was the end result of their schemes. These 'champions' of the poor made damned sure that their ranks would ever swell (and continue, conveniently enough, to vote for them to keep the gravy train running) and that economic opportunity everywhere was lost. Obviously the NDP and the Greens never learned this lesson, which is why their second rate "brains" from Jack Layton to Elizabeth May keep peddling this bullshit on us, oblivious as the two out-of-date characters to the dangers of not only the injustices you can see but the ones you cannot: the jobs never created because of the perverse incentives of government welfare combined with the money taken from the economy in order to fund them; workers left crying for a handout because the unions have been given so much power that they force companies into diverting too many resources towards lavish spending to current employees rather than the investment that could increase their ranks; individual liberties falling by the wayside as the government continues to grow and grow sweeping aside more and more of what used to be known as the private sphere.

The two men in history are ignorant of this. The two men in the play are ignorant of this. Tragically, since the writers are also ignorant of this we end up with a polemic piece of garbage that is pushing snake oil eight decades past its expiry date. As a whole the actors do a decent job of what they are given, and the man portraying Woodsworth has his look spot on: even in some spots though the weird clunky dialogue causes them to falter as they are trying to figure out whatever the hell they are trying to say. The play runs a good 10 minutes too long, as the script runs out of gas and simply rehashes the same bits over and over again.

The best moment in the play has to be however Woodsworth being upset that he was charged for quoting the bible in public. Yeah, go ask Hugh Owens about that, you jerkwads. Again the irony in there, for all their concern about strong-arm tactics in the 1919 general strike, they certainly didn't mind union thugs in the late 20s and early 30s. It's again the limitation of only these two characters meeting: we aren't able to look back and compare this discussion with the realities of the world they (and we!) live in. The authors of this play certainly wouldn't want you to learn too much about the real legacy of King (heavy scandals that would make Jean Chretien blush, and the fact that he literally thought his dead mother talked to him from beyond the grave with the help of crystals), nor about J.S. Woodsworth either who thought that war was so horrible that it would be better to have stayed out of WWII even after he learned the fate of those living under the Nazis. History's greatest monster, as The Simpsons would call him.

Final word: About as entertaining and as fulfilling as reading a pamphlet from the Marxist-Leninist Party.