Oliver Goldsmith's 1773 comedy, She Stoops to Conquer, is one of the most beloved and most performed of all Restoration and 18th-century plays. Pre-20th-century classics, except for The Importance of Being Earnest, have been almost completely absent from the Grand since the fateful one-year reign of Robin Phillips in 1983-84. Knowing that the play was directed by Christopher Newton, Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, and would feature Shaw veterans, Michael Ball and Wendy Thatcher, led one to expect an excellent night out at the theatre.
In the event, the production proved quite a disappointment. This is not due to Mr. Newton, but rather to giving in five key roles to actors with little significant stage experience and little or no experience acting in classic drama. Instead of a well thought-out production with richly nuanced acting like one might expect at the Shaw Festival, we were presented with something more like a mediocre student production with pretty costumes and Michael Ball.
Restoration and 18th-century comedies are difficult to produce because they depend so much on all involved having a clear notion of the period and all that entails, such as class distinctions, language, style, etiquette, etc. Christopher Newton is well aware of this as his program note shows. However, this is precisely what was lacking in the performances of the five principal young actors--two women and three men--all of whom, as it happens, come from British Columbia. (The play is a coproduction with the Vancouver Playhouse.) One assumes that Newton imparted what he could to them but that their training was insufficient to make full use of his instruction. All five suffered to a greater or lesser extent from poor diction, little or no attempt to match the English accents of the three mature actors and only a vague notion of the correct style for this kind of play.
Worst of the five was Katey Wright as Constance Neville, whose demeanor and delivery were more appropriate to a sit-com than a classic play. Her unmodulated voice became annoying by the end of the evening. Jane Perry as Kate Hardcastle, the "she" of the title, is the pivotal character of the play who must be able to present herself convincingly as both a well-bred English girl and as the low-class barmaid she pretends to be. Kate "stoops to conquer: by pretending to be of a lower class than she is to win her lover. Ms. Perry, unfortunately, communicated neither Kate as upper class English nor as lower class, doing nothing at all to change her demeanor or accent when moving from one role to the other. She let a change of costume take the place of acting.
On the whole, the three young men fared much better. Best was Rick Dobran as Tony Lumpkin, the lovable lout spoiled by his mother. Of the five young people, he knew best what his character was about and how to make the laughs derive from his character, not from mugging or other added business. Mike Wasko as George Hastings had the strongest presence, undermined, however, by lapses of diction. When, as Hastings, had to congratulate his best friend on taking an action that had ruined his own plans, Wasko was unable to show the contrary emotion underneath his hearty congratulations.
Jeff Meadows as Charles Marlow was also unable to communicate more than one layer of feeling at a time. He telegraphed his shyness at meeting Kate in the broadest manner while he did not make his shift in interest in Kate disguised as the barmaid clear enough.
Among the mature actors, Marek Weidman was very good in his two small roles as the Landlord and as Charles's father. Wendy Thatcher, however, as Dorothey Hardcastle, abandoned all subtlety and created a caricature not a character. It could be she was provoked to such overacting by the general underacting of the young people or by the mostly unresponsive audience who seemed to have difficulty following the relatively simple plot. It was thus left to Michael Ball as Richard Hardcastle, excellent as usual, to anchor the entire production. Whenever he was on stage one felt that here, finally, is someone who knows what this play is supposed to be like. He alone had the correct sense of style, delivery and portrayal of multiple layers of character. He alone gave off the kind of energy a comedy needs. But he was playing mostly in a vacuum.
Vancouver designer David Roberts' sets did nothing to suggest that the Hardcastles' house is "old" or "old-fashioned" as it is frequently called in the text. Shaw designer William Schmuck's costumes, while very handsome for most of the cast, made Kate and Constance look giddy and superficial rather than smart and clever as they are supposed to be. For someone who has had so many successes, it must have been a frustrating show to work on for Mr. Newton. One had the sense that one directorial idea after another had to be abandoned until something simple was found that the cast could bring it off.
Despite all this, this was not the worst production of a Restoration/18th-century play I've seen (think of "Love for Love" at Stratford in 1990!). The Grand should be congratulated for programming something substantial for a change. Unfortunately, due, I assume to their financial difficulties, Kelly Handerek, the new Artistic Director, has announced a 2000-2001 season that will consist entirely of fluff. Those who want something more from the theatre will have to wait or go elsewhere.
© Copyright2000 Christopher Hoile
We in Toronto should be grateful to the Mirvishes for having programmed two recent plays from France in their 1999-2000 season, namely the delicious comedy Art (1994) by Yasmina Reza and Variations énigmatiques (1996) by the increasingly popular Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. While we have become used to seeing the latest work by English, Irish and American playwrights, it seems we very seldom see contemporary plays from outside North American and the English-speaking world. Let us hope these two plays may the beginning of a more international diet for theatre-goers as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s.
The production of Enigma Variations comes to the Royal Alex from the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles primarily as a star vehicle for veteran Canadian actor, Donald Sutherland, and marks his return to the stage after an absence of 20 years. The production is rather a family affair as it is produced by Francine Racette, Sutherland's wife, who first drew his attention to the play, and is translated by by his son, Roeg. Sutherland plays a Nobel prize-winning author, Abel Znorko, who has just published his latest novel to great acclaim. It is in the form of an exchange of letters between a character also named Abel Znorko and a woman named Eve and is dedicated to someone known only as "H.M." Znorko, who for 15 years has been living as a recluse on a private island in the far north of Norway, has allowed a journalist, played by John Rubinstein, the rare chance to interview him. The journalist, however, has come to exact from Znorko an admission that not only are "Eve and "H.M." the same person but that he knows who "H.M." is. Further, he claims the novel is not a work of fiction at all but the actual correspondence between the two.
The play moves forward very much as an old-fashioned mystery, though with a certain malicious humour, as deliberately withheld information gradually comes to the fore culminating in a series of surprising revelations. While the structure may be conventional, the intent, given Schmitt's training as a philosopher, seems to be to demonstrate the thesis that all knowledge is mediated, or on a personal level, that one person can never truly know another person, even one he has loved. The "H.M" known to the journalist is so completely different from the "H.M." known to the novelist that it is difficult to believe the two are the same person. Thus, as in the play Art, characters are shown to see in another person only what they wish to see and never the person as he or she really is.
The thesis of the play, however, is undermined by the contrivances of the mystery-play structure. By comparison, Art is by far the more elegant and satisfying treatment of the same theme. "Art" begins as what seems an insubstantial comedy that becomes increasingly more profound as the playwright allows one implication after another to grow from the interaction of the characters. Enigma Variations announces its claim to profundity fairly early on with much talk of "the existential loneliness of the self." As the Royal Alex programme states, Schmitt's plot has "more twists, turns and surprises than an Agatha Christie thriller. This is only too true. Christie's plots, though entertaining, are often far too contrived to be plausible. One of the later "twists" in Enigma Variations is so unlikely that became too difficult willingly to suspend my disbelief. This "twist" is where the play has been heading all along, but one ruefully comes to see that the thesis, not the characters, has been driving the action.
Up until this later plot twist, Enigma Variations had been an entertaining if not especially gripping evening. Ming Cho Lee's handsome set, Robert Wierzel's subtle lighting and Jon Gottlieb's highly effective soundscape combine to create a sense of a lonely house in landscape both bleak and beautiful. Both actors give very fine performances. Schmitt's Abel Znorko is a very meaty role for Sutherland, far more substantial that the kinds of parts he's been playing in films lately, requiring the sustained development of his character from the haughty, disagreeable misanthrope we first meet to the docile, shattered man near the end of the play. Sutherland was in full command and one could only regret that his absence from the stage has lasted so long. Unlike the usual two-character, star-vehicle, the role of the journalist Erik Larsen did not devolve into that of an aide mémoire for the star. Rather, John Rubenstein skillfully moved his character from beleaguered politeness at the start to anger and rising confidence until his character takes on a moral authority at the end of the play. While Anthony Page's direction was clear and detailed to a degree, I found, given the amount of information each characters is withholding at the start, that the actors should have been encouraged to suggest more fully that there is a subtext to what they are saying. This would help increase the tension in the first part of the play and motivate Larsen's return to a man who offers him nothing but insults. Then some, though not all, the withheld information, when revealed, would strike us less as bolts from the blue.
Fans of Sutherland need not hesitate. It's a pleasure to see him on stage and it is an all-too-rare event. He received a standing ovation at the end of the performance and has done so every night. (He also received applause and bravos just for turning around when the play started!) Fans of mysteries à la Christie also need not hesitate. Anyone, however, who is looking for a recent French play that does not unravel the more one thinks about it will have to hope that Art returns to town.
© Copyright2000 Christopher Hoile
In 1998 Toronto theatre-goers had the unusual opportunity of seeing a new British play before it opened in London's West End and went on to win the 1999 Olivier award for best new comedy. The play was Shelagh Stephenson's The Memory of Water and Toronto got to see it early because Stephenson had roomed at Manchester University with the play's future Toronto director, Jackie Maxwell, who simply knew the merit of her friend's first play before anyone else. The play also became the first in what may become a trend of the Mirvishes choosing a successful local production in a smaller theatre and scheduling a remount for their full subscription season at the Royal Alex (1500 seats). Thus, a huge number of people were already signed up to see the play here even before the 1999 Olivier awards were announced. Because of having to reschedule Enigma Variations, The Memory of Water was moved to the smaller but still grand Winter Garden Theatre (992 seats).
I mention the sizes of the various theatres because that seems to have had a great effect on how the play was performed. At the small 210-seat Tarragon, Stephenson's black comedy about three sisters reuniting in Yorkshire for their mother's funeral was seen to its very best advantage. All five actors presented finely detailed characters and the mood was delicately balanced between comedy and pathos. At the remount in the Winter Garden Theatre, with all of the same personnel, the theme was made clearer but the overall effect lost much in subtlety as the comedy in the play veered into farce and the pathos lost impact. Nevertheless, a second viewing confirmed that Stephenson's is a fresh voice in British drama, able to tell a story both serious and funny, realistic and dreamlike, within a framework of larger philosophical concerns.
It may be that a play like this is best served by an intimate setting where actors do not need to project so forcefully either voices or emotions. The six actors seemed unable to cope in a uniform way with the larger space so that what had been a very balanced, unified production became unbalanced and fissile. My general impression was that instead of merely transplanting the Tarragon production into the Winter Garden, the whole production needed to be rethought since the small gesture 210 can see clearly may not be noticed by 992.
While Sue LePage's set had thrust into the Tarragon audience, suggesting a house described as perched on a cliff soon to crumble into the sea, at the Winter Garden it nestled snugly within the proscenium. The three triangles of fabric that symbolically had linked the set to the Tarragon auditorium were lost up in the Winter Garden ceiling. When the mother's ghost symbolically steps into the void near the end of the play, she had stepped (shockingly) into the Tarragon audience. In the remount she merely walks down into the orchestra pit. Even scenically, the play confronted us less in the new venue.
Of the six actors, only one was able to scale her performance successfully to fill the larger space with no loss of impact. That was Corinne Koslo as Vi, the ghost of the mother who has died of Alzheimer's. We have to see why her daughters think of her as vulgar and conventional while at the same time realizing that in rebelling against her they have not really understood her at all. Fixed in the minds of her daughters as she was in the 1950's--in one of Sue LePage's wonderful costumes--Koslo perfectly captured all the nuances of this complex character who, though on stage only a short while, is crucial to our view of the daughters and the play itself. In some ways Koslo brought to her character a greater integrity than she had in the Tarragon production.
Martha Burns was excellent as the middle sister, Mary, who experiences a far wider range of emotion than the other two and who is the only one we see having conversations with her mother's ghost. She, more than the other two, has to let go of her anger about the past. She is also the only one to see how in denying her influence they have actually repeated her mistakes. Only in her scenes with Peter Cockett, ably playing the married man with whom she is having an affair, did I miss the tension that was so strong in the Tarragon production. Even in their last scene together when she gives him an ultimatum, the crucial tension was missing; but then the director seemed to have speeded up the pace throughout and did not allow the kinds of pauses needed for this tension to develop. Kristen Thomson reprised her delightful portrayal of the youngest sister, Catherine, with her bad taste in clothes and worse taste in men. Her feeling of being unloved, which she tries to soothe with drugs and sex, creates so great a need for love that it pushes away everyone she tries to be close to. If anything, Thomson was able to make this character seem more vulnerable than in the Tarragon production. Unfortunately, in having to project to a much larger auditorium, her voice lost much of its modulation.
Two otherwise very fine actors fared worst--Nancy Palk as the elder sister, Teresa, and Randy Hughson as her husband, the travelling health food salesman. To my taste, Palk very much overplayed her big drunken scene when she inadvertently reveals a number of family secrets. She gave hardly a glimpse of the unhappiness that underlies her character's desire for control, quite unlike her performance in the smaller theatre. At the Tarragon, the comedy in Hughson's character came from the fact that he is dead tired and never allowed to sleep because of the family bickering surrounding him. At the Winter Garden, he gave almost no hint of this and instead relied on a funny voice and funny delivery to get his laughs. He got laughs but his acting style no longer fit in with the others on stage. Again, the impression was that Jackie Maxwell, who had done such a superb job in directing the Tarragon version of the play, had not sufficiently coached her actors in how to play to a larger space without a loss of subtlety.
Anyone who has seen the Tarragon production will likely be disappointed with this remount. Anyone who has not seen that production will still see a wonderful new play offering both abundant humour and much to think about--the fickle nature of memory, the meaning of loss, the unknowing repetition of the past--but they will see a production that could be much better than it is, a production which, if memory serves, was much better without so much void to fill.
© Copyright2000 Christopher Hoile
I attended the opening of the current production of the Weston Little Theatre last night. All I knew prior to the performance was that there was a large cast and that the group's local members were talking less about this production than has been the case in the past. They where obviously too busy.
While the Lights Were Out is an ambitious production. First-time Director Vince Salmonds has demonstrated bravery in himself and confidence in the actors and crew in the staging of this play by Jack Sharkey.
The premise is simple enough; there is a gathering of many, a murder (or two) and two members of the Bermudian constabulary who spend the rest of the evening solving it. Along the way we are privy to a variety of intriguing relationships and unexpected twists. In the tradition of the whodunit, the obvious murderer is everyone and almost every character has a chance to be suspect for a time. It was a joy to be entertained by so many small but polished bit parts. While there was occasional straining to maintain the accents, the characterizations and acting were credible and engaging.
To develop and maintain a set that houses the ever expanding clues may very well have taken more planning than accommodating the large cast on a small stage. This aspect was admirably done.
Weston Little Theatre continues to grow and develop and provide
an enjoyable evening out for the community. The production of
While the Lights Were Out has received the support of the
City of Toronto through the Toronto Arts Council. For Information
about While the Lights Were Out or to join the Weston Little Theatre
call the Weston Little Theatre box office at (416) 703-8133. Weston
Little Theatre is a member of the Association of Community Theatres
of Central Ontario.
One of the many North American premières at the du Maurier World Stage festival is the production of Fire in the Head ("Feuergesicht" in German) by the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg. It introduces us to two new talents who have already made an impact in German-speaking countries. Marius von Mayenburg, the author, was only 26 when this, his fourth play, won the Kleist Prize for Young Authors. It had its first performance in Munich in 1998 and was taken up the next year by many of the regional theatres in Germany, including the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg. There, Thomas Ostermeier, the director, then only 30, gave the play such an electrifying production that it became a major hit in Hamburg and was invited to a number of European theatre festivals. It will have its English-language première at the Royal Court Theatre in London on May 26.
What struck me most was that in here at the end of the 20th century, years after we have been told that our age is too cynical to create tragedy, a young person comes along, ignores this conventional wisdom and writes one. If John Ford had written his great tragedy 'Tis Pity She's a Whore in 1997 instead of in the early 1600s, Fire in the Head is what it would look like. In both plays a brother and sister come to have an incestuous relationship and cling to it above all other connections with other people including their parents. In both plays the older generation is so convinced of its own normality that it fails to see abnormality and potential disaster looming under its own roof--something an outsider comes to see quite readily. In both plays the brother comes to form his own philosophy to justify his obsession--Giovanni in 'Tis Pity uses medieval logic, Kurt in Fire in the Head uses Heraclitus. In both the tone is satirical at the beginning only to plunge into scenes of horror by the end. And in both plays the theme focusses on two young people so alienated by the world around them that they live in virtual isolation and operate according to a self-created code of morality.
What is fundamentally different in Fire in the Headis that there is no surrounding religious framework to the play and that the central couple do not wish to preserve their love so much as to prevent themselves from growing into the stasis they see in adulthood. _Both Kurt and Olga (Robert Bayer and Judith Engel) are going through puberty and hate the loveless "normality" they see in their parents (Wolf Aniol and Gundi Ellert). This adult world is not actively corrupt as in 'Tis Pity but merely dull. The father rejects closeness from his wife to follow newspaper accounts of the deeds of a serial killer. Rather than this sort of vicarious thrill, Kurt and Olga seek a life of sensation or at least of having some kind of feeling about something. This begins with their first exploration of sex. But when Olga finds a greater excitement with another boy, Paul (Mark Waschke) and the freedom of his motorcycle, Kurt finds another source of warmth--fire. At first burns only a dead bird in a newspaper, but gradually moves on to making firebombs and torching buildings at night. In one attack he burns his whole face giving him the "Feuergesicht" of the German title. His bloody and cream-smeared face becomes a kind of mask of unknowability that he wears until the plays cataclysmic conclusion.
Just as a Jacobean tragedy needs a director with a firm grasp
of the overall meaning of a text that contains elements as disparate
as satire and horror, so it must have been with this play. Ostermeier's
was the fifth production of the play in Germany and it may be
that it took five tries to find a director who understood how
best to put the play across. (Now Ostermeier plans to direct all
Mayenburg's future work.) In other hands, the play might seem
merely a lurid horror story. But Ostermeier brings a whole range
of Brechtian techniques to bear to insure that we are evaluating
the various disturbing actions and not merely being disturbed.
Each of the characters directly addresses the audience with their
thoughts from time to time, but instead of changing the lighting
or freezing the other characters, as is common on our stages,
Ostermeier has the other characters listen intently to these monologues.
At various times characters who are trying to decide what to do
will glance directly into the audience as if expecting them to
answer. We became so used to this constant breaking of the fourth
wall that when Waschke had to ask an audience member to give him
the underwear which had accidentally fallen off the stage, it
seemed part of the play. This subtle sliding of the actors into
and out of acknowledging the audience, so well mastered by all
five actors, is something I had never seen before and is obviously
the latest refinement of Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt. All
this was particularly unnerving in a play where one would otherwise
expect a naturalistic treatment.
Rufus Didwiszus' set was a long, narrow, raked platform with a double bed in the center, a kitchen table and chairs to house left and a working bathroom sink to house right. The very minimalism of the set shifted the setting from naturalistic to symbolic, the three areas representing three animal functions. The set also gave Ostermeier three acting areas where he would often stage two or even three actions simultaneously where a North American director would freeze actors to have only one action occurring at a time. The effect was to have one action comment upon another, as when the parents continue an argument in mime at the table while Olga and Paul talk together in bed and Kurt looks on from the bathroom.
By all these various techniques, Ostermeier focusses our attention on the meaning of the action. What Olga gets most out of riding with Paul is a sense of warmth and of having some effect on something. What Kurt had with Olga and then with fire itself is exactly the same except that fire is more controllable than another person. In Kurt's philosophy, life is heat and death is coldness. From his point of view his parents are already dead so that moving from childhood to adulthood is a kind of death. Mayenburg's play is a tragedy about human existence caught in the unstoppable flow of time. The adults have either grown so used to the idea or have so tried to forget about it that they can no longer understand their children who in going through puberty have a heightened awareness of being caught up in a process of inexorable change. In Beckett's Endgame the symbol for life is an alarm clock gradually running down. In Fire in the Head it is a lit match burning. But where Beckett sees humour in this futility of fighting time, Mayenburg's match is struck to light a room soaked in gasoline.
I would say I hope that we see more of the work of both Mayenburg and Ostermeier, but based on the power of the play and its direction, I'm sure we shall.
© Copyright2000 Christopher Hoile
Greek tragedies were first performed as trilogies and Aeschylus' "Oresteia" is the only surviving such trilogy to come down to us. To see any production of this cornerstone of Western drama is something no theatre-lover should miss. The production by the Royal National Theatre of London, here as part of the du Maurier World Stage festival, however, is not "any" production. Rather, it is the most gripping and most intelligent production of a Greek tragedy I have ever seen. We should be grateful to Don Shipley, artistic director of the du Maurier World Stage, for bringing it to Toronto.
One of the many factors working in favour of this production is its use of a fresh translation by the late Ted Hughes. Hughes's tough, sinewy poetry is a perfect match for Aeschylus' great portrayal of human barbarity and its eventual supersession by civilization. One succinct image succeeds the next without the filler of so many other translations so that the translation has great clarity and bite. It is as if Hughes has sandblasted grime from an old building: we know that the building is old but it looks new and the bricks have been revealed.
It is also an eminently speakable translation and in itself a pleasure to listen to. One wishes Hughes had been able to take on the whole canon.
Perfectly suited to this translation, and perhaps prompted by it, are Katie Mitchell's direction and Vicki Mortimer's design. One approach, like that of Niketi Kontouri in her production of Euripides' "Medea" for the National Theatre of Greece seen here in 1998, is to make the action elegant and highly stylized, focussing on the psychology that leads to barbarism rather than the barbarism itself. Such an approach to the "Oresteia" would not be appropriate since the barbarism of the first two plays must be made clear if we are to understand its overthrow in the third. And, indeed, Aeschylus is not so much interested in psychology as in explaining, as does Milton, "the ways of God to Man". Mitchell and Mortimer show they have a firm command of the arc of Aeschylus' conception. To portray this to a modern audience they have minimized the monumentalism of Aeschylus' ritualistic action to find the gritty, more accessible realism in the story itself.
Mitchell has divided the trilogy into two parts, with Aeschylus' "Agamemnon" retitled as "The Home Guard" and with "The Libation Bearers" and "The Eumenides" presented together with an interval between them and retitled "The Daughters of Darkness". The two 3-hour parts could be viewed separately or seen, as I did on one day. For purposes of clarity I will use the plays' usual names and speak of them as three plays.
One of Mitchell's techniques is to extract a symbolic element from the text of one play and apply it to the other two to create a sense of unity and to underscore structure and meaning. In Aeschylus' trilogy, a ghost appears only in the last play. Taking her cue from this, Mitchell has a ghost physically preside over the action of the first two plays and appears via video in the last. In each case the ghost represents a wrongful death that is the prime motivation for revenge for the central figure of each play. In "Agamemnon," Iphigenia, with a gag still in her mouth, the daughter sacrificed so that the assembled ships of the Greeks could sail against Troy, watches over the action of the play. Mitchell makes her constantly present just as she is constantly present in the mind of her mother, Clytemnestra, who has waited ten years for the return of Agamemnon to exact her revenge for this sacrifice. Once he is killed, he takes the place of the vanished ghost of his daughter and continues to observe the action of the second play. In "The Libation Bearers," Orestes and Electra plot the murder of their mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegithus in revenge for Agamemnon's death. Once she is killed, her body raises itself from the table where she has been laid and calls for the Furies to avenge her by hounding Orestes to death. The image of her calling for revenge appears in the third play only as a projected video. The video image fades just as the need for taking personal revenge also fades with the institution of trial by jury, where disputes are settled by the reasoned deliberation of outsiders not by individuals seeking personal justice through murder.
Mitchell can also tie the three plays together with a simple prop. From Aegisthus we hear that Thyestes, when he cursed the House of Atreus (Agamemnon being Atreus' son) broke a bowl and prophesied that thus the whole House would break apart. So, at the moment Agamemnon death cry is heard, Mitchell has the ghost of Iphigenia shatter a bowl. So does the ghost of Agamemnon when Orestes kills Clytemnestra. But in "The Eumenides," when a bowl appears it is passed around from Athena to the now-tamed Furies as a sign of reconciliation and the end of the curse.
Properties in general are kept to a minimum--two tables, some chairs, a washtub--but their continual re-use creates links among the three plays. The most brilliant stroke of the design is the red "carpet" that Clytemnestra rolls out for Agamemnon tempting him to step on it even though such an action is only appropriate for the gods. The "carpet" is in fact made up of little girl's dresses, dyed red and sewn together, reminding us of Iphigenia's sacrifice and of the transgression Clytemnestra thinks her husband has made in carrying it out. In the second play Orestes reveals this same "carpet" as the net Clytemnestra used to ensnare her husband and his paramour Cassandra before killing them. Indeed, Clytemnestra's tempting Agamemnon to walk on the carpet is meant to ensnare him in his own hubris.
The designer, Vicki Mortimer, has moved the setting of the plays to the 1940's to provide an analog for a modern audience of a great war now over. Mixed in with this are a remote-controlled door, compact tape-recorders and video cameras. Some may have found this mixture jarring but it conjures up the sense of mythological time which is both in the past and, since still relevant, also in the present. The principal characters, while alive, have no change of costume from play to play, giving them a kind of iconic status. We can think of Clytemnestra only in her red-flowered dress (the flowers foreshadowing and later recalling stains of blood) or Aegisthus in the slick tuxedo of a womanizer. There is the homey touch of Orestes' change from his camping gear to nicer clothes for his trial, but that corresponds with his change from seeking vengeance to accepting judgment. Mitchell and Mortimer have also noted how the nature of the chorus alters from play to play, moving from having differing and even contradictory responses in the first play, to a more uniform response in the second to the stultifyingly monolithic front they present in the third. Accordingly, Mortimer has given the chorus of old soldiers individualized costumes in "Agamemnon," variations on female serving costumes as the titular "Libation Bearers" of the second play, and conservative blue uniforms as the "Eumenides" of the third.
The plays which began their run in 1999 at the Cottesloe Theatre, the smallest of the three theatres in the Royal National Theatre complex, were played here on the floor of the du Maurier Theatre with the audience surrounding the playing area on three sides giving the gory goings-on a cringe-making immediacy. The only set element was built across the fourth side and consisted of a huge sliding door set in a metal wall. Characters "activated" this by remote control or by pressing buttons so that we heard a warning electronic buzz before the door grindingly slid open or clanged shut. This, of course, stood in for the important central door of the "skene" in ancient drama and was used for the same effect--to emphasize significant entrances or exits and to reveal emblematic scenes such as the slain Agamemnon and Cassandra in a bathtub. The high-tech adaptation of the door suggested not only a security system Clytemnestra and Aegisthus use to keep rebels or avengers out but also a kind of dungeon door trapping victims, ultimately themselves, inside.
Although all twelve actors, including the two musicians, took part in the various choruses and took on various roles, individual performances still stood out. Chief among these was Helen Schlesinger as Clytemnestra. Hers was a superb portrait of the cynical politician--in public saying what the people want to hear, reacting as people think she should react, all the while hiding her obsession with revenge. Once she has killed Agamemnon and Cassandra, she let the mask drop, exulting in every detail of the murders, reveling in the blood, daring the elders to condemn her and proclaiming her crime as justice. It was a supremely forceful and chilling performance that she carried into the second play. There is a scene in which she begs Orestes not to kill her, using a rapid series of ploys which only show him her innate duplicity. Their extended struggle with each other around a formal dining table is one of the most excruciating scenes I have witnessed. Lilo Baur as Cassandra, a prophetess who can sense the aura of past atrocities and can foresee the future including her own death but is condemned not to be believed, gave an almost unbearably intense performance communicating the full horror and frustration of her character. As Electra in the second play, she suitably muted her vehemence, relying primarily on posture and demeanour to differentiate the child from the prophetess. Joy Richardson's role as the goddess Athena in the third play did not require the emotional intensity of the other women's roles. She had the right steadiness and clarity of speech to suggest a character for whom reasoned persuasion is paramount. Luckily, the trial and reconciliation scenes of the third play were not done as a kind of cynical media event, as in Josephine LeGrice's 1997 Toronto Actors' Equity production, which vitiated the resolution the first two plays demand. Richardson made Athena's conversion of the Furies seem authentic as it should be.
Michael Gould as Agamemnon was not the conflicted hero Aeschylus must have imagined, but rather a kind of swaggering brute unaware of the pointlessness of the war he has just fought. As Apollo in the third play, clad in a corduroy suit, he seemed not so much the god of poetry as a kind of left-wing lawyer trying to get his client, Orestes, off. His notorious speech devaluing the role of woman in having children thus came off more as a part of his polemic rather than as the accepted view of the time. Paul Hilton sharply differentiated his three roles. He made the Watchman, whose long speech opens the trilogy, into a kind of prototype for the porter in "Macbeth," beginning the work on an unexpected note of comedy. He continued this strain as the chief of the chorus of old men, characterizing him as a kind of befuddled history buff who delights in taping the sound bites he thinks may be important. As the youth Orestes in the next two plays, he adopted a completely different manner of delivery, almost seeming to improvise his lines thus suggesting the awkwardness of a character required to kill his mother but nearly lacking the resolve to do it. The agonizing scene when he tracks Clytemnestra around the table trying to get hold of her to complete his revenge unavoidably made one see it as a more brutal version the closet scene between Hamlet and Gertrude. Sebastian Harcombe as Aegithus in the first two plays perfectly captured the amoral social climber, without shame in allowing his wife to doing the killing in what he claims is his plan, ready to flirt with a maid or even his own step-daughter and full of disdain for the populace he rules after Agamemnon's death.
All three choruses were very good, the chorus of old men in the first play being the most enjoyable because the most individualized. The traditional speaking in unison was abandoned, except for certain significant words, in favour of having each of the wheelchair-bound veterans create a character appropriate to the lines he says. This procedure made sense of the many contradictory lines this chorus has in response to actions they disapprove of but are powerless to stop. The chorus of serving women in the second play was probably the least involving. While their lines express a complete unity of purpose, the variable accents of the speakers often made their words unclear and their speeches less effective. In the third play the blue-uniformed Furies were wittily transformed from supernatural beings to members of some kind of arch-conservative religious cult--they are, after all, believers in the old ways, not the new. They alternated between precise unison and individual declamation, reflecting the unified front they present to Apollo and Athena but also suggesting the eventual crumbling of their hard-line stance. At the end of the final play, when the twelve performers took their bows, it seemed incredible that so few people with such minimal means had created a story of so wide a scope.
This was a superb production of a masterful translation of one of the fundamental works of Western dramatic literature. Anyone who had devoted six hours to viewing it had cause only for great delight and satisfaction. The hours in fact seemed to fly by as happens only when a production has fully engaged the mind and the senses. In the audience there was a real sense gratitude both to the performers and to the festival that had brought them to us.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
The Samuel Beckett double bill of "Footfalls" (1975) and "Krapp's Last Tape" (1958), playing here as part of the du Maurier World Stage Festival, provides an excellent opportunity to see two of the finest actors working in Canada in challenging roles. Elizabeth Shepherd plays May in "Footfalls" (with Jennifer Phipps as the off-stage Voice). John Neville plays the title character in the second play. Beckett is not a playwright one associates with these actors, but they inhabit their characters so fully one might think the plays had been written for them.
The well-conceived double bill takes up only 90 minutes including an intermission, but provides a rich evening of theatre because of the various parallels and contrasts between the two works. Most obvious is that the first play is for two female voices, one on stage and one off, and the second for two male voices, Krapp on stage and his younger self on tape. "Footfalls" is from Beckett's last period when the theme of despair was no longer leavened with the humour of "Waiting for Godot" (1952) or "Endgame" (1957). "Krapp's Last Tape," written the year after "Endgame," early on establishes its genre when Krapp slips on a banana peel. The contrast is further heightened in this production since the two plays have different directors and are directed in very different styles. William Scoular emphasizes what is emblematic and abstract in "Footfalls," while Graham Cozzubbo emphasizes the naturalistic in "Krapp's Last Tape". Intellectually, it would have been more logical to present the two plays in chronological order. That way we could see how Beckett takes the relatively straightforward situation in "Krapp" to compress it and make it more abstract in "Footfalls". Emotionally, however, it was a relief to move from the unmitigated gloom of "Footfalls" to Krapp's world where gloom has not yet, but is just about to set in.
"Footfalls" itself is a miniature play in four acts, each "act" announced by the chiming of the bell of a clock. The work is played in semi-darkness, moving a shade darker in each "act". Much credit is due to the lighting designer, Robert Thomson, for making these gradations so precise in a play that is really about degrees of darkness, both inner and outer. What we see, once our eyes adjust, is the figure of a woman seemingly bundled in rags wearily taking nine loud steps back and forth in a narrow rectangle of light a degree brighter than the surrounding murk. On closer inspection we notice that the floor in the rectangle of light is bare while the rest of the stage is carpeted. We also note that the woman is not wearing rags but a kind of full-length shawl. Set and costume designer Janice Lindsay's brilliant idea is to have the shawl seem to be made of the same material as the carpet. The woman says she needs the bare floor to "hear the feet, however faint they fall". But the physical need for this bareness is matched by her mental plight of being wrapped up in persistent thoughts. Just as her feet take her nine steps, "wheel" and walk back, so her thoughts continually "revolve". "When will you stop revolving it all?" the voice of her mother asks throughout the play.
We never exactly find out what "it all" is. Through her disjointed speeches, in which her thoughts seem painfully to emerge into sound, we learn that May has been caring for her bed-ridden mother and that guilt lies behind the insomnia that drives her to pace at night. As most Beckett characters do, May is composing an autobiographical story, this one about a girl named Amy who seems to have left mass before the final amen, thus provoking her mother's disappointment. More we never know except that from that time things changed for both of them, compelling Amy (May) to stay in the house she was born in. She (and we) still hear her mother's voice (or imagined voice) reproving her and asking, in effect, when she will forgive herself so that her pacing will stop. Elizabeth Shepherd, attractive and robust in real life, makes May look haggard and expressionless except for the searching eyes of someone in the profoundest despair. She still addresses herself to her mother, but every word seems painful to make. Still within that tortured voice, Shepherd is able to distinguish the voices of mother and daughter in the story she tells. With each further degree of darkness, her steps, already difficult, become a corresponding degree more laboured until she is left standing in the middle of her rectangle. In an amazing moment on stage, she seems to age ten or more years as we watch her. Jennifer Phipps as the Voice amplified from off stage had its usual richness and strength, here used to contrast with attenuated voice Shepherd uses as May. Both were directed to speak with extreme slowness, thus elongating their vowels into a kind of moan. This distortion of speech and gait and the figure of this ghost of a woman clad in her enormous shawl can all be found in the Noh plays of Japan, making me wonder if they were the model for Scoular's style. The answer to when May will stop "revolving it all" comes in the last "act" when the lights go up to find no one on stage and then go down again.
Compared with "Footfalls," "Krapp's Last Tape" is one of Beckett's most accessible works. There are no questions of when or where the action is occurring or what it is really about. It is Krapp's 69th birthday and he is in his den preparing to made his annual taped review of the past year. Unlike the semi-darkness of the first play, Krapp at his table is in a pool of bright light. This is not a play where we are to contemplate the image of a human being enslaved by despair, but rather one where we witness its onset. The play begins with a cliché of comedy when Krapp slips on the peel of banana, a forbidden enjoyment given his digestive problems. To prepare himself, Krapp listens to what is clearly his favourite tape, "box three, spool five". Much of the humour of the first part of the play comes from the 69-year-old Krapp's varied reactions, from interest to disgust, to this tape of himself made when he was 39. The younger Krapp is also Neville, masterfully capturing the young man's vigor and pomposity.
He boasts he's on "the crest of a wave," ready to write his magnum opus, and although alone claims he's glad to have said farewell to love. The younger Krapp thinks the most important thing he has to record is a major revelation he had about the meaning of everything. We get the build-up to it but never hear the revelation because the older Krapp fast-forwards through it knowing it's all tosh. The passage he tries to find and then plays is about an encounter with a woman in a boat on the river. When the older Krapp fumblingly tries to make his new tape for the year, he realizes he has nothing to say. He prime event was reveling in saying the word "spool," something we witnessed just minutes before. Eventually, he decides to postpone finishing his own tape and listens instead to his favourite part of "spool five". He is so entranced with this memory of the woman in the boat that he unwittingly lets the tape play beyond that passage to his younger self's conclusion that "Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn't want them back." At this Krapp lets the tape play on as he stares into space. In Neville's face the corners of the mouth turned down so far that it chillingly became exactly like the traditional mask of Tragedy.
In these short 45 minutes we have moved from the farce at the beginning to this realization that this last "chance of happiness" is now 30 years ago. Krapp knows he does want the years back whose record he keeps listening to, but now the hopelessness of this has dawned on him. The tape tonight is his last tape. Since the actor playing Krapp is silent for much of the play, the focus is on Krapp's face as he listens. Neville's expressive face carried us through Krapp's brief moments of pleasure at the start to befuddlement, disgust, rapture, mixtures of all these, to final despair. A number of times the two Krapps react simultaneously, the hearty laugh of the younger Krapp contrasting with the feeble laugh of the older. The naturalism of Cozzubbo's direction and the absorption of Neville into his character were so strong I had to remind myself I was watching a play.
As Krapp stares outwards, we realize that life is like the tape being played out as it turns, just as May's life runs out before our eyes as she "wheels" in her pacing and revolves in her mind. May is already enveloped by a past memory she can't let go of; we see Krapp coming to this horrible revelation. In both cases, what Beckett seems to demand from the audience is compassion for his characters and, by extension, for human beings in general. This double bill demonstrates how Beckett, two directors and the two main actors can elicit that compassion in two different but complementary ways.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
It would not seem like
a du Maurier World Stage Festival without a new work by Canada's
best-known theatre artist, Robert Lepage. This year we have the
English-language première of "The Far Side of the
Moon", known until shortly before it opened as "The
12th House." The new title more accurately reflects the French
title, "La Face cachée de la lune", as it appeared
in its world première at Le Théâtre du Trident
in Quebec City on February 29, 1999. The play was co-written by
Adam Nashman and based on an original concept by the Swedish producer,
Peder Bjurman. American performer, Laurie Anderson, wrote and
recorded the original score.
The advance publicity made one think the play was Lepage's meditation on man's dream of travelling to the moon. In fact, the play is much more earthbound, focussing on the relation of two brothers, Philippe and his younger brother André, who grew up against the backdrop of the US-Soviet space race. (Philippe gives his birthdate as December 12, 1957, the same as Lepage's.) Philippe, now 42, is defending his thesis on Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), the first theoretician of space flight and the first to formulate escape velocity. André, 38, is a weatherman for the Weather Channel and thus is constantly gesturing over satellite photos of weather patterns on earth. This is the only literal outer space connection between them. Metaphorically, however, they are like two sides of the moon--André, highly visible in his TV job and facing only the earth in his limited concerns, Philippe, almost totally unknown but facing the rest of the universe in his aspirations. They are also like the two sides in the space race during which they grew up. André, interested only in appearances and money, is like the Americans astronauts who reach their goal of being first on the moon because of financing and narcissism (as per Lepage's definition of "astronaut"). Philippe, full of ideas but unsuccessful, is like the Soviet cosmonauts who (according to Lepage) thought of reaching the moon in the much larger context of exploring the cosmos, i.e. exploring "what is." Philippe's two heroes, Tsiolokovsky and the cosmonaut, Alexei Leonov, were both creative artists as well as scientists. They combine in themselves the two qualities, the visionary and the practical, that led to man's landing on the moon.
The action of the play takes us through several weeks in the lives of the two brothers, primarily Philippe, shortly following the death of their mother. He, not André, is the one interested in cleaning out their mother's apartment. He is one who makes increasingly more unsuccessful attempts to communicate his ideas: first at his thesis defense, then failing to meet the Alexei Leonov in Quebec City, and worst, flying to Moscow to address a conference on Tsiolkovsky, only to miss the meeting because of the time change. Early in the play, Philippe learns of a competition by the scientific group SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) to select ten home-made videos later to be beamed into outer space to give any listening extraterrestrials a view of life on earth. Interspersed throughout the play, before his disastrous trip to Moscow, we see Philippe making parts of the video. The final irony in the plot is that, although Philippe has been a "loser" in every way, his video is chosen as one of the ten to represent life on earth.
As the ending shows, this work, in contrast with much of Lepage's other work, is a comedy. Not only is the arc of the plot comic, but there is abundant humour throughout. Philippe's video shoots of life of earth brings his, and Lepage's, satirical eye to bear on everything we take for granted. The satirical point of view is always that of the outsider or one who feels "other" in relation to his surroundings. While we laugh with Philippe as he points out the absurdity of everyday objects and rituals, we laugh at André for his self-importance and lack of self-knowledge.
Besides this, much humour throughout the work derives from Lepage's fundamental sense of "play." It is this aspect for which Lepage is best known, but here more than his other work we are meant to enjoy the vitality of the imagination that can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. As a result the set (co-designed by Marie-Claude Pelletier) is relatively simple compared to the complex cubicles of "The Seven Streams of the River Ota" or the various mechanisms concealed beneath the gravel floor in "The Geometry of Miracles." The most complex set element is a mechanical wall the width of the stage--mirrored on one side, dark with fluorescent lights on the other--that can rise or turn either side parallel to the floor. This wall embodies the central metaphor of the play, the moon, reflecting us (literally us the audience) on one side and dark on the other. Behind this wall is another wall made of sliding panels that can become rooms or doors to rooms, closets or elevators depending on how they are opened or closed.
Lepage is also known for his use of various kinds of media. In this work we find puppets of astronauts (designed by Pierre Robitaille and Sylvie Courbron, manipulated by Marco Poulin), live video, projections and documentary films about the space race that serve as interludes between scenes. Nevertheless, the greatest and most humorous effects are achieved by far simpler means. An ironing board becomes in Lepage's hands various pieces of gym equipment, a moped, a CAT-scan table, a lunar rover or even himself as a child. The door to a washing machine becomes the hatch of a space capsule, a CAT-scan machine, the womb, an airplane window or a goldfish bowl. Indeed, this work made me wonder whether Lepage is in the process of divesting his theatre of its high-tech trappings in favour of something purer and simpler.
In this physical environment where anything can change into anything else, it is fitting that Lepage himself play all the parts. He plays not only the two brothers, but their mother, Alexei Leonov, an American astronaut and Philippe's doctor. Lepage makes the last three of these very distinct in terms of accent and diction (the mother is silent), but strangely, he has both brothers speak in exactly the same low-voltage, deadpan manner. Only through the witty costuming (by Marie-Chantal Vaillancourt) and by what they say can one tell the two apart. More striking than his acting is Lepage's ability at mime. There are occasions through the play when no props at all are used. His miming is so precise that we know, for example, what all the various objects are when André rummages through his brother's side of the bedroom. The highpoint of mime in the play is also the play's final scene when Philippe performs a delightful zero-gravity ballet to Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" in an airport waiting room.
The structure of the work is quite unusual in that Lepage never plays more than one character in a scene. As a result, each character is seen only when addressing an unseen listener. We see this in the numerous one-sided telephone calls through the play, Philippe's voice-overs as he makes videos for a potential alien audience, the doctor's speaking to his unseen patient, Philippe complaining to an unseen bartender or when Philippe decides to give a speech anyway to a room of empty chairs set for the meeting he has missed. The structure of seen speaker and unseen listener, of course, parallels the visual theme of the seen and unseen sides of the moon. We use our imagination to extrapolate from the one side we see or hear what the other side must be. This play of multiple binary oppositions is meant to lead us to an overrriding unified view. We may be surprised, but should not be, that the play, which shows us the famous cosmonaut-astronaut handshake in space, ultimately leads to the reconcilation of two brothers who, according to their mother, had built a "Berlin Wall" between them. That wall, a central image in Lepage's 1988 "Le Polygraph", is down now. In a play in which one actor can become several characters and any object can apparently change into any other, Lepage seems to be asking us to see that there is no border between what we know and what we can imagine. He was greeted at the end with thunderous applause.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
As part of the du Maurier
World Stage Festival, Harbourfront Centre presented a staged reading
of Shakespeare's "Edward III." I would not ordinarily
review a staged reading, but this was not an ordinary occasion.
It was the first staged reading of the full text of "Edward
III" in Canada. On September 27, 1998, the London Times reported
that the editors of the Arden Shakespeare, convinced by the results
of the latest computer-aided textual research, had decided to
include this formerly anonymous work in their new edition as Shakespeare's
39th play. In October 1998, three days after the play received
the Arden imprimatur, an actor at Shakespeare by the Sea read
excerpts of the play to an audience, playing all the parts, to
claim for himself the honour of giving this "new" play
by Shakespeare its first performance in Canada. While that may
have been the first public reading in Canada of excerpts from
the play, the full text was not read and few people would claim
that it was a staged reading, implying that roles are played by
several actors who have rehearsed their parts and their movement
The du Maurier World Stage programme had announced that the Soulpepper Theatre Company would present the play in honour of Shakespeare's birthday and that Robin Phillips would direct. That is not what occurred. Phillips and Soulpepper were still preoccupied with fine-tuning their production of "The Mill on the Floss" and bowed out of the project. At that point, Don Shipley, Artistic Director of the World Stage, phoned Peter Van Wart to see if he could rescue the project. Van Wart and Rosemary Dunsmore, who became the new director, hand-picked a group of 13 actors to play the more than 50 parts. The result was a resounding success and a vindication of the play's right to be included in the Shakespeare canon. It was exciting to be witness to this historic occasion.
According to Giorgio Melchiori, editor of the play for the Cambridge Shakespeare, the play dates from late 1592 or early 1593. That would place it in the same range as "Richard III", "The Comedy of Errors" and "The Taming of the Shrew." Of all of Shakespeare's plays, "Edward III" has the most in common with "Henry V" seven years later. In both a hero-king ridicules the Salic Law of France, claims his right to be the King of France, invades and triumphs. In both plays an entire act is taken up with a love scene between the king and a noblewoman. The nature and placement of that love scene within the action, however, is very different. In "Henry V" the king first conquers France and then in Act V must conquer the hand of Katherine to secure his rule. In "Edward III" the king, already married, falls in love with the Countess of Salisbury, also already married. His obsession with this illicit love threatens to ruin his campaign against France and to ruin his own reputation, showing him to be a tyrant and hardly the ideal of a magnanimous ruler. In a series of encounters that look directly forward to the scenes between Angelo and Isabel in "Measure for Measure", Edward becomes so enamored that he is willing to abuse his power as king to obtain his desire. Only through the eloquent pleading of the Countess and her threat to kill herself is the king brought back to his better nature. Thus, Edward has to conquer himself to be fit to conquer his foes. Unlike Henry V, whose son is only mentioned in the Chorus's last words, much of the second half of "Edward III" concerns Edward's relations with his son Edward "The Black Prince" and his introduction to and mastery of warfare.
Peter Van Wart's greatest casting coup was to have Kenneth Welsh play the title role. One could not have thought of a better choice. Welsh's power and complete mastery of the verse convinced us again and again that this was indeed Shakespeare's work. But forcefulness in a warrior can be misdirected as we see later in "Othello." Where Othello is tempted to jealousy, Edward is tempted to an unlawful love. Welsh's scenes with Rosemary Dunsmore as the Countess of Salisbury were the high point of the reading. Welsh's Edward slides into his abuse of power willing himself not to know what he is doing and still knowing he is doing wrong. Dunsmore was excellent as a woman who must use all the persuasive powers of reason to turn her king back to the right path. The rest of the cast was also very fine, all of them, except Welsh, having to play multiple roles. I was slow to warm to Alex Poch Goldin as the Black Prince, but as the reading continued he seemed to become more involved in his role and delivered his Hamlet-like speech accepting death whenever it may come with eloquence. Among the older actors, Graham Harley stood out in the role of Lord Audley, the Prince's mentor who teaches him how to ready himself for death and later must confront death himself. John Gilbert was most effective in the role of Warwick, the Countess's father who has the unenviable role of trying to persuade his daughter, against his own wishes, to give in to the king's lust. Patrick Galligan showed a facility for speaking verse in the roles of Lorraine and Salisbbury, the Countess's husband, but did little to distinguish the two.
Among the minor characters, Peter Van Wart well captured the French King John's nature as befuddled and over-credulous without making him a caricature as so often happens with the French king in "Henry V." John Ralston, as his elder son Charles, and Mathew Edison, as his youngest son Philip, were both excellent, Ralston especially so in the scene where Charles upbraids his father for breaking an oath made to him. Unlike in "Henry V", Shakespeare is willing to show that the French, too, have a moral conscience. Satire is reserved for the Scottish King David (Oliver Becker), the King of Bohemia (Jan Filips) fighting for the French, both of whom made much of their appropriate accents, and for Lodowick, Edward III's secretary (Keith Knight). The scene where Edward asks Lodowick to write a love poem for him was certainly the most humorous in the play. Christine Moynihan was also excellent in her two roles as the Mariner who describes the Armada-like destruction of the French fleet to King John and as Philippa, King Edward's wife, who reacts strongly to the (false) report of her son's death. Musicians Marisa and Ernesto Cervini skillfully used keyboard, flute, clarinet, trumpet and drums to set moods or underscore themes throughout the play.
As I hope this description suggests, "Edward III" is filled with juicy character roles. Van Wart and Dunsmore did so well with their cast drawn from actors working in Toronto, one doubts if Soulpepper could have done better. It would be a treat to see the same cast reprise their roles in a fully staged production. Don Shipley mentioned that he had expected perhaps about 20 people to turn up on an Easter Sunday afternoon to hear an obscure history play, but in the event, the Brigantine Room was packed with an audience of 250 paying rapt attention to everything on stage. The questions on everyone's mind seemed to be "When will we ever get a chance to see this play again?" and "Will we ever see a fully staged production?"
In June last year the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival presented what it called the first fully staged production of "Edward III" in the eastern United States. (The play had been done in Los Angeles in 1986 when when the author was still "Anonymous.") In Canada, the most likely place to look for a full production would be the Stratford Festival. After all, how often is a new play added to the canon of the world's greatest playwright? Stratford, however, has shown little interest in performing the full canon even as previously constituted. "Henry IV, Part 1" was last done there in 1984 and "Henry IV, Part 2" in 1979. The Henry VI plays have not been seen since 1980. Artistic Director, Richard Monette, has been quoted in print more than once expressing his lack of interest in Shakespeare's Histories or "all those plays that end in numbers" as he calls them. Rather an unfortunate view, I'd say, since those plays make up almost a third of Shakespeare's output. And now there is one more.
We can, thus, only hope that the success of the reading on Easter Sunday will spur some adventurous group to take up the challenge and bring this work, so full of ideas Shakespeare would use again in different contexts, to an even larger audience.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
It is a credit to the
reputation for fine work they have gained that after only two
years the Soulpepper Theatre Company should be asked to be part
of the du Maurier World Stage Festival. Teamed with Robin Phillips,
the director who put Soulpepper on the theatrical map of Toronto
in their first season, the company presented the North American
première of Helen Edmundson's adaption of George Eliot's
1860 novel, "The Mill on the Floss". After watching
what was obviously a meticulously prepared production, I could
only wonder how the same team that had made Friedrich Schiller's
1787 neo-Shakespearean tragedy "Don Carlos" so electrifying
two years ago had made this 1994 adaption so utterly boring.
My first inclination was to suspect the work itself. I have no great affection for novels adapted into plays. There are so many great plays that go unperformed, I don't see the point in adaptations that at their best can only remind one of or make one want to read the original work. But there are good and bad adaptations. "Pride and Prejudice" by Christina Calvit at last year's Stratford Festival, although very popular, gave one the impression of fast-forwarding through the novel in order to play the famous bits at regular speed. Edmundson's adaption of Eliot is far superior. Her main conceit is to have the central character, Maggie Tulliver, played by three actresses representing her as a child, an adolescent and an adult, and to have these three interact with each other as time passes. This allowed Edmundson to overcome one of the main flaws in adaptations of novels--how to communicate the inner feelings of the main character without resorting to monlogue. Edmundson's dialogue is terse, the action unhurried and the plot sensibly divvied up in two halves, but there are long patches where what the characters have to say, unlike in classic poetic drama, is not inherently interesting. And unlike in Pinter, there is rarely a subtext to make the ordinary seem to mean more than it says. Here, characters usually do say what they mean when they have the chance.
Given this kind of text, it falls to the director to give the play life. Although Robin Phillips is one of the few great directors of classical drama in North America, in this case his approach proved to be exactly the opposite of what the play needs. "The Mill on the Floss", like Edmundson's subsequent adaptations of novels, was first performed to great acclaim by the British company Shared Experience, a company that specializes in what is known as "physical theatre". Just last week saw a very potent version of physical theatre at the World Stage when the Maly Theatre of Saint Petersburg performed Lev Dodin's production of "Gaudeamus". There spoken text existed only an adjunct to scenes of prop- or movement-based theatricality, not unlike a series of human circus acts that happened to have a narrative through-line. Phillips, however, is justly famous as a text-based director able to coach actors to communicate fine nuances in lines and the complexities in plot. His past successes have been primarily with very "rich" poetic texts, like those of Shakespeare, Molière or Schiller, in productions where unnecessary externals are pared down to only what will highlight the meaning of the text.
Edmundson's text is not "rich", and that Phillips' normal technique only emphasized this poverty. Thus we saw the fairly ludicrous spectacle of fine actors coached to get every ounce of meaning out of lines in which there was only a dram to begin with. Given the slow, deliberate pace of the action, line after line seemed to fall from the actors' mouths with a clunk in the funereal silence. The dialogue sounded very much like that of a melodramatic opera libretto but without the music to lift it. Humour, which is clearly there in the remarks of Maggie's relatives was downplayed as much as possible so that one felt guilty for laughing. While the intent may have been not to undermine the the overall atmosphere of doom, suggested in the mimed prologue to the play, a fuller sense of comedy the first part would have heightened the tragedy in the second. The gloom would have been broken, but so would the deadening monotony.
Although the first fourth of the play deals with Maggie and her brother and friends as children, Phillips clearly had directed the actors to avoid any obvious signs that they were playing children. What they were saying contrasted so much with how they looked and what they were doing that one wondered, until their ages were finally announced, if they were supposed to be children or mentally challenged adults. The same was true in the next fourth when the characters were supposed to be adolescents. Only in the second half where all the characters are adults did we seem to be on firm ground, but after intermission is far too late to arouse an audience's interest in the characters.
Phillips' few attempts at "physical theatre" were heavy handed. How many times did we need to have the entire cast snarl or stare at Maggie to get the point that she is oppressed by society? How subtle is it to show that Maggie is torn between love for her brother and love for the son of the man who ruined their family by having the brother take one of Maggie's arms the son take the other and start a tug-o'-war? Only the miming of the flood and its effects at the conclusion made any impact.
The level of acting was generally high and consistent. All clearly were closely adhering to Phillips' vision of the play, the only problem being that that vision undermined their effectiveness on stage. Of the three Maggies, Torri Higginson as the child and Julia Arkos as the adolescent were not very strong, Arkos far less interesting than Higginson. As the adult Maggie, Brenda Robins was excellent, communicating both defiance and vulnerabilty. It is not her fault that the script and direction made it unclear why she should cling to her brother's authority, despite the rift between them, to reject the two men who love her. As Maggie's brother Tom, Stephen Ouimette was best as a child and adolescent. The script gives him as an adult little to do but upbraid Maggie for her choice of boyfriends. Neither the script nor the direction suggests any sexual subtext for this behaviour. Tom McCamus as the tutor, Mr. Stelling, was pretty much a blank. However, in his second role as Stephen Guest, Maggie's best friend's betrothed who falls in love with Maggie, McCamus was back in form because here, for once, there was a subtext to his character's words and actions, even if it was the conventional smouldering fire that finally bursts into flames. Steven Sutcliffe as Philip, Maggie's childhood friend and adolescent sweetheart, was also effective in suggesting long-repressed emotion. As Maggie's parents, Terence Kelly and Roberta Maxwell were very fine, especially Kelly, who made the gruff but lovable routine as the father seem less clichéed. The direction continually inhibited the humour that could have come out in Maxwell's character, seemingly as preoccupied with her linen as with her children. In her other role as Lucy, Maggie's best friend, she had very little of interest to do. Anna Hagan, as Maggie's prudish Aunt Clegg, could have been the source of much humour if the direction had not smothered it. Jack Wetherall played five smallish parts, though not distinctly enough that I always knew who he was. He made the strongest impression as Bob Jakin, the kindly friend of the Tulliver family, and as Dr. Kenn, the seedy minister.
To contrast with the naturalistic acting, John Thompson's set was completely abstract--a square wooden platform surmounted by a smaller square wooden platform, the whole surrounded by square white walkway. Three black mesh screens descended, often in front of the action. Since there was so little to engage us in the action in the first place, it seemed unnecessarily unkind to try to distance us from it further. Sue LePage's costumes were very pleasing, cleverly linking the three Maggies with variations on the same blue flock and contrasting her with the other characters all in blacks and muted browns and golds. Louise Guinand's lighting was very effective in giving a warm glow to the action of the first half to contrast with the cold light of the second.
This was, thus, an unlucky debut for Soulpepper at the du Maurier World Stage. The same cast and production team could have shone brightly if only the approach of the director and the requirements of the play had not been so at odds. I have no idea how this choice of play was made especially since both the director and Soulpepper have a love for the classics of world theatre. It's too bad this particular play should mark their first appearance at an international theatre festival.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
In 1998, on a commission from the Théâtre du Rideau Vert in Montreal to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his breakthrough play, "Les Belles-Soeurs", Michel Tremblay wrote a play to celebrate his mother as his mentor. The play was "Encore une fois, si vous permettez" (literally, "One more time, if you allow me") or in the lively English translation of Linda Gaboriau, "For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again." The production currently playing in Toronto is the product of the first-ever collaboration of the English-language Centaur Theatre in Montreal and the Canadian Stage Company in Toronto. Toronto is the final stop in a six-city Canadian tour and in September the production will move to Washington, D.C. for play's U.S. première as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations for the Arena Theatre.
Celebration, indeed, is the key word in describing this play and its effect. The character called the Narrator (a not even thinly-disguised version of Tremblay himself) begins by telling the audience what kind of play they will NOT see. Through clever allusions we see that it will not be a Greek tragedy, or one by Racine or Shakespeare, or one of Tennessee Williams' more dispiriting dramas or even one of those depressing absurdist plays with people in trashcans. This will be a celebration of a woman who has lived in all places and times. She could have been the aunt or niece or cousin of one of the central figures of a tragedy, but she is not a tragic figure herself. Although she was his main inspiration in writing plays through her own love of the theatre, she never saw how the theatre works from behind the scenes and she never lived to see her son's success. She died five years before the première of "Les Belles-Soeurs."
Given the Narrator's stated parameters, we also should not expect a typical play by Tremblay--there will be no drag queens, no incest, no murder, no degradation. Instead, the play he gives us is very warm-hearted, filled with abundant humour and more than a little sentimental--quite in keeping with the tastes of its central subject. Dennis O'Connor, the Narrator, also plays the playwright at various ages from ten to twenty-eight in a series of encounters with his mother, Nana, marvelously played by Nicola Cavendish. Through these encounters we see how Nana's love of words, story-telling, exaggeration and the effect these all have on others become the prime influence on the Narrator in choosing the vocation of a writer. She herself says that she exaggerates to keep from getting bored and that without telling stories she could not get through life. The stories she tells her son about his Aunt Gertrude, Uncle Alfred and cousin Lucille are hilarious. She also tells stories to fill for the education she has missed as when she tries to explain to her son how kings came to be kings by divine intervention. She loves literature because it transforms reality. She knows that she wonders what an actress does when she is not acting and wonders if an actress wonders what she or any audience member does when they are not watching her. Although not educated, philosophical questions like this occur to her about how the actor and audience exist in relation to each other. From daily exposure to this kind of exploring mind, constantly entertaining itself and others, another lover of words and stories grows up.
As the Narrator, Dennis O'Connor, is quite engaging. I found his impersonations of the son from ages ten to sixteen not especially effective and not particularly differentiated from each other. As the son from age eighteen on, however, he was very fine, although his role really is only to serve as a foil to Nana. As Nana, Nicola Cavendish gives a performance I don't expect ever to see bettered. She has invested her character with a wide range of gestures, inflections and habits all her own. All of these are scaled to the various ages when we see her character--from the full vitality of her younger years--ranting, playful, tired, exasperated, satirical--to the year when she learns of the cancer that seems to make a mockery of her love of being a mother, as if she were pregnant with her own death, as she puts it.
All these interactions occur on the minimalist set of John C. Dinning, sensitively lit by Louise Guinand consisting only of a table, two chairs, two narrow black walls against a black backdrop. I do not wish to reveal the ending in which Dinning's full abilities are made apparent, but let me say that the Narrator does not wish our last view of his mother to be of her filled with pain, worry and fear of death. Instead, the Narrator calls upon the "magic of the theatre" to let his mother see the theatre as she never had the chance to and to send her off in a manner befitting the inspiration she gave him. His celebration of his mother thus becomes a celebration of the theatre.
The director, Gordon McCall, Artistic Director of the Centaur Theatre, expertly manages the action and changes of mood. It is possible that he does not linger long enough on the more serious aspects of the piece and is too quick to cut to a laugh, but at least, he lets us see that a serious undercurrent is there. In the end, the play's success or failure depends almost entirely on the actor playing Nana. Nicola Cavendish makes the role and play a triumph.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile
the latest play by the author of White Mice, recently on
view at this year's du Maurier World Stage Festival. The young,
prize-winning author moves from the theme of racism in that work
to the rather more general themes of perception, knowledge and
God--all within the space of an 80-minute play. While it is overwritten
and repetitive, the piece is audacious enough to make one look
forward to whatever O'Donnell and director Chris Abraham cook
The play is a neo-Absurdist philosophical parable about a geneticist, Dr. Thoughtless Actions, who wakes one morning to find a box secured to his head. After a series of scenes in which he comes to grips with his predicament, Actions, in a deep state of loneliness, cut off as he is from the world, comes up with the solution of running around the globe quickly enough eventually to catch up with himself. He does this at which point another geneticist, Dr. Wishful Thinking, appears, clad exactly as Actions and also with a box on his head. The two conduct a series of experiments--cloning an echo, creating an echoless yell, to thoughts of cloning space and time. They soon fall in love, want to have a baby and have their DNA tested only to discover that they are actually the same person. Finally, God, demoted to the role of narrator throughout, whose amplified voice we hear and whom both doctors hear as an inner voice,suggests a solution that will supposedly end the doctors' problem but willa lso end His own existence. During the course of the play, we find that even God has His own inner voice, that of Everyone and Everything, which is awakened briefly only to go back to sleep again.
Paul Fauteux as Dr. Thoughtless Actions and the playwright himself as Dr. Wishful Thinking speak though microphones so that, through the magic of the sound designed by Henry Monteforte and Tyler Devine and expertly managed by Stephen Souter, their voices are electronically mixed to make the high, cartoonish voices of the two doctors, the lower voices of God the Narrator and the even lower voices of Everyone and Everything. Nina Okens's bright costumes help give the show the look of a live cartoon. The action takes place behind a scrim on a totally black set by Cand Cod. The complex lighting pattern by Steve Lucas and Sandra Marcroft involves various squares and rectangles of light suddenly appearing not only on
stage but in the audience. The whole work is accompanied live by the percussionist Roman DiNillo, whose blacklit white loves seem to reinforce the play's theme of duplication and, when not at playing instruments, serve to mime parts of God's speeches.
It may sound damning, but at 80 minutes the play is too long. The sections involving the cloning of space and time lead nowhere and, except for their value as interesting ideas, could have been omitted. The section where God tries to distract the "young Gods" present (i.e. the audience) by focussing its attention on something insignificant leads to a comic nude scene which seems to be its only raison d'être. The increasing use of profanity, while initially funny, eventually gives the show an unwelcome
sophomoric tone. The references to current Ontario politics seem out of place in such an abstract work. O'Donnell could also learn from Samuel Beckett how to suggest that his characters are caught in a cycle of repetition without being repetitive himself. With alterations along these lines, the show could be tightened and made smarter.
Otherwise, O'Donnell and inventive director Chris Abraham present the audience with more intriguing ideas and striking images per minute than one usually finds in a full-length show. While O'Donnell cites various recent works as his sources, the play actually is a rapid traversal and critique of various philosophies of the world as an extension of the self from Lord Berkeley to Fichte and Schopenhauer to 20th-century Existentialism. O'Donnell, who has a degree in shiatsu therapy and a sympathy with Eastern thought, satirizes the West's focus on the self and the individual by showing the blindness this leads to, not just in human beings, but also what they choose to call "god". He even brings this critique to bear on the theatrical experience. After all, we the audience have chosen to be in a box assigning our own values to the illusions we see and the voices we hear.
This is not mainstream theatre and is not meant to be. For the adventurous, this play will be a tonic opening up other possibilities of what theatre can do. Somehow an absurdist approach seems right just now when people have access to so much "information" but know so little about themselves or how they think.
© 2000 Christopher Hoile