Mark Colvin’s Kidney, by Tommy Murphy | Directed by David Berthold

Belvoir (http://belvoir.com.au) | Belvoir Upstairs | Until 2 April

In 2011 and 2012, Lord Justice Leveson presided over a series of hearings in response to Rupert Murdoch’s News International phone-hacking practices. It was, we hoped, the beginning of a new era of a more ethical press culture.

The inquiry had been triggered by the discovery that News of the World reporters had hacked and tampered with the voicemail of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler.

The scandal and resultant inquiry made headlines around the world as the hearings included testaments from celebrities such as Elle Macpherson, Hugh Grant and George Michael, who had also been hacked during the preceding years, and led to a number of celebs in turn suing News International for breach of privacy.

The hacking and inquiry also caused personal and professional fallout for those involved. Mary-Ellen Field, Elle Macpherson’s one-time closest adviser, was one such casualty. Unfairly sacked by Elle in 2005 because the supermodel believed Field had been the source of leaks about her private life, Field also testified at the later hearings.

Enter Mark Colvin, respected Australian journalist, who interviewed Field as part of his reporting on the scandal.

Then Field donated a kidney to Colvin in a life-saving operation.

Tommy Murphy’s pragmatically titled Mark Colvin’s Kidney follows the intricate and emotional journey from Field’s sacking through to the transplant operation.

The staging (thanks to the oversee of set designer Michael Hankin and director David Berthold) successfully takes us to a doctor’s surgery, hospital rooms, airport, radio studio, rehab, a home, Westminster, the London Tube, just to name a few locations.

Quotes and tweets crawl across the top of the back flat like a news ticker, providing time and background and context.

Clips run of Rebekah Brooks and Murdoch hounded by photographers, Milly Dowler’s ‘missing’ notice, the Dowler family address to the media.

We all know about the hacking controversy, but the details may be a bit sketchy to most of us. This extra layer of detail helps.

Since this is a play depicting real events, albeit as derived from research and the main participants’ perspectives, the actors have a tough job giving realistic impersonations as well as conveying the story of emotions involved in a live-donor transplant.

John Howard physically and vocally inhabits the persona of Mark Colvin, while also giving us the emotional complexity of a once-vital man struggling against failing health and too proud to accept the generous offer of the ultimate gift from a friend.

Sarah Peirse also shines as Mary-Ellen Field. Since seeing the show I’ve found videos of Field’s testimony at the inquiry and can report that Peirse seems to have nailed her real-life character.

But, more importantly, she’s cut through the clipped tones and conservative manner of Field to clearly convey the confusion, frustration, sadness and heroicism of this journey.

The play is a slow burn, plodding through the necessary background of a period in time most of us remember but probably didn’t know in detail. It’s not until Howard and Peirse start taking the stage together that it really got The Guest and I drawn in.

They have an unlikely chemistry that makes it feel as though they have been friends for years, as were Field and Colvin, even though they were mostly in different hemispheres.

It doesn’t make for a spine-tingling, electric couple of hours in the theatre, but it was interesting to watch the real-life drama unfold.

A live donation is an extraordinary gift, and such an unlikely gift between two distant friends from such different walks of life and political views.

Playwright Murphy had an unenviable task on his hands to balance that ultimate act of kindness with the vile actions of News of the World that initiated the journey to it.

The program points out that “Australia has one of the best survival rates for all organ transplants but we fall behind in donations”. If you want to know more about organ donation, go to www.donatelife.gov.au.

To donate to kidney and transplant research, go to www.powhf.org.au.

Above: John Howard and Kit Esuruoso. All images: Brett Boardman.

Helem Thomson and Sarah Peirse.

Christopher Stollery.