Universal Shakespeare

A visit to London is never complete unless I get to spend some time with my good friend Jessica Ruano. Last time I was here, we got to meet Simon Callow after a performance of Being Shakespeare. This time it was to stop in at the Globe Theatre where a group of 21 actors from around the world had gathered for three weeks of intensive work on Shakespeare as International Fellows of the theatre.

We got to see the culmination of their work – a kind of mash-up of scenes from a variety of plays presented in a variety of languages – for these actors have come from as far afield as New Zealand, Australia, Israel, Macedonia, Italy, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Georgia, Serbia and Greece – as well as a couple from Canada and the U.S.

The presentation was an opportunity for the actors to showcase what they studied during their time in London, so there were plenty of styles and techniques on offer for those present to enjoy and admire. It was a pleasure to watch the company at work – for they had clearly become a company – and if I have any criticism it is that they eagerly presented us with too much at once. Because they worked through diverse scenes from Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, and many more, the event ran for over two hours; while I appreciate their interest in showing us everything they’d done, I think an hour would have been fine from the audience’s perspective.

This was my first visit to the Globe, and while I’m certainly interested in seeing one of Shakespeare’s plays performed here during my visit the opportunity to see these fine actors strut their stuff made for a great first impression.

Meanwhile, Jessica and I plan to have a little fun with The Lavender Railroad. More on this anon.

Yes, Prime Minister

GCTC-2013-14-posterloop-ProudLong, long ago when I first arrived in Ottawa as a young public servant I discovered a tremendously valuable guidebook to the byways of the nation’s capital and the political specimens to be found therein. My bible was the British satirical series Yes, Minister and its successor, Yes, Prime Minister. Political science treatises were offered to viewers disguised as witty banter, but the simple truth was that the show did indeed show how politics worked.

So it is with the opening show of the season for the Great Canadian Theatre Company with Proud by Michael Healey. For the political junkie in me, the characters’ explanations of sometimes savage political truths is like mother’s milk – and I suspect this is true for quite a large number of audience members at GCTC as well. The piece is clearly fiction and clearly satire, so I’m frankly puzzled by the tempest in Toronto last year in which the Tarragon Theatre declined to produce the show. If anything, in many respects the play offers a sympathetic portrayal of an all-controlling but unnamed Prime Minister Stephen Harper (played by Healey himself).

Unlike Yes, Prime Minister, in which the crafty bureaucrats run rings around the slightly dotty PM, in Healey’s play it’s the PM who lectures to a newly elected backbencher. Jenny Young offers a tour-de-force performance as the dotty Jisbella Lyth who echoes George W. Bush in challenging and surprising those who “misunderestimate” her.

There are plenty of winking nods to contemporary Canadian politics that earned hoots of laughter from the audience, but these will become obscure as time goes by. But the characters’ analyses of why they do the things they do are timeless and I’d heartily recommend them as a worthy complement to Yes, Prime Minister to the next generation of public servants for study.

Under Wraps

I’d never had the opportunity to visit Newfoundland before – it’s the last of Canada’s ten provinces for me – so I was very happy to visit St. John’s recently and get to know a city I’ve heard so many good things about – and which has been home to such a wide swath of Canada’s theatre community over the years.

As it turns out, Jillian Keiley is directing a new production of Robert Chafe’s 1997 play, Under Wraps, in St. John’s. I met Jill earlier this season upon her arrival in Ottawa as the new artistic director of the National Arts Centre’s English Theater, and she was kind enough to invite me to sit in on an almost-dress-rehearsal over the weekend at St. John’s LSPU Hall.

Since it hasn’t opened yet, I’m not going to review this production, but I don’t think I’m giving much away by saying it’s a love story with a lot of heart – complete with a “shape-shifting” chorus who provide the music, the commentary … and the furniture. And it was a particular delight to discover that Chafe, who wrote the play and acted in the original production, is back as a member of the chorus, though you won’t get to see him until the curtain call.

Under Wraps opens at the LSPU Hall in St. John’s on May 7 and runs through May 19. If you’re anywhere in the vicinity, do try and see it – details at Artistic Fraud.

Fool for Love

concordeI had the good fortune to see a most remarkable production this week – Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” a production of Théâtre des Cybèle directed in French by Kevin Orr, a professor in the theatre department at the University of Ottawa, and it’s set in a remarkably seedy motel room on Montreal Road in Vanier. It’s a play about love, rage and jealousy and it’s set, yes, in a seedy motel room. The audience – there’s room for 12 of us – are seated on folding metal chairs lining the walls of the room, and we are thoroughly in the midst of the action of the play – audience members are asked to make sure to stay out of the actors’ way as they rush about the room. It’s claustrophobic, visceral, emotionally charged, and a thoroughly exceptional piece of theatre. Bravo to the actors, Nathaly Charrette, Yves Turbide, Paul Rainville, and Nicolas Desfossés.

Don’t understand French? Doesn’t matter. Immersed in that motel room, you can’t help but figure out what you need to know just by watching the actors, their faces, their gestures. When I was in Dublin last year I saw a production of Sam Shepard’s “True West”; the year before, I caught “The Curse of the Starving Class at the Abbey”. But in spite of being English-language performances, neither Irish production seemed to quite capture the essence of Shepard – either the despair of the characters or the idiom of the playwright’s language – the way this one did. So bravo too to the translator, Michèle Magny.

It’s a limited run to May 1 and with only 12 seats I suspect there aren’t many more tickets available – but if the opportunity presents itself, grab it!

Fruition

The undercurrents festival is on at GCTC – go see the shows! – and two of the works featured are SKIN and Ladies of the Lake.

Wearing my GCTC playwright-in-residence hat, I got to sit in on some of the development for each of these and quite enjoyed the experience in each case. Both shows share a number of interesting elements in common, particularly their incorporation of music and movement into the stories that they’re telling. Since my work has been very much based on text and only text, this was an opportunity for me to expand my horizons a bit and see how other approaches to creation might work. This was all very fruitful: I learned a lot and (I think) contributed a bit to each of the shows in kind, but I was also very, very curious to find out what the shows would look like once they had, you know, developed.

So this past week I was glad finally to see the fruition of all that work for both the companies involved. Interestingly, at each performance I found myself feeling a little lump in my throat of pride that all the people involved in both shows were able to show the world what they’d done at the festival. My hat’s off to them all – it’s a tremendous investment of hard work, sweat, toil and tears to journey from the initial germ of an idea to the auditorium filled with people eager to see what you’ve created. I sometimes feel as though I spend most of my time in that “initial germ” state, so it’s good to be reminded that the purpose of the exercise is to share that creation with the world in performance.

Go see both shows if you can, as well as all the other fine stuff on offer at undercurrents.

Galatea Coda

Although my reason for being in Ireland this month was to join the tour of “Galatea,” I was hoping I might also have the opportunity to see a bit of someone else’s theatre as well. So after my show closed in Derry, I made my way to the town of Enniskillen, not too far from Sligo, home to the new “Happy Days” Samuel Beckett festival. (The playwright went to school in the town.) There I saw Robert Wilson‘s production of Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” which he has been touring for the last few years; this was his only Irish appearance.

Idiosyncratic and brilliant, it draws its audience in with a stupendously loud crash of thunder and an extended rainstorm on a monochromatic set that tells you this performance will not be a brief one. Krapp appears in whiteface. He moves about the stage slowly. He eats a banana, and then another one. And then, after an eternity of moments has passed, he speaks.

This is theatre that is unabashedly theatrical, and it is remarkable to watch Wilson, who is now 70 years old – about Krapp’s age, come to think of it – carry it with such aplomb. The enthusiastic applause from the audience suggests that he hit his mark perfectly, and on emerging from his black and white world into the wildly green Irish countryside all I could do was try and process what I’d seen.

Wilson’s website offers additional images from the production. Of course, they don’t do justice to the show, but they do give a small sense of what it’s like. If it should be playing somewhere nearby, go see it!

From Enniskillen I made my way to Dublin, where I paid a visit to the Smock Alley Theatre, tucked in a tiny road on the edge of Temple Bar off the river Liffey. The Smock Alley prides itself on being one of the oldest theatres  in the English-speaking world, having been established in 1662 after the restoration of Charles II,like the Drury Lane in London.

I had seen shows there in years past, but this was my first chance to see what the place looked like since a major refurbishment that was completed earlier this year. As it happens, a young new company called Ramblinman was offering a production of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” which I thought would be fun to see. (Last year, I saw a production of “The Curse of the Starving Class” at the Abbey.)  It seems that in Dublin as in Ottawa recent graduates from acting programs find that the most opportune way to get on stage is to produce. In this instance the actors brought great enthusiasm, talent and energy to the play, and though one could quibble about certain choices they or the director made I found myself excited that they were having a go, and if I were living in Dublin I’d be very interested to see what they come up with next.

Finally, a friend suggested that I indulge in a midday excursion to the National Concert Hall – largely because the first item on the program was The Beautiful Galathea by Suppé.  The concert was delightful – a fitting coda for the tour.

Hate Radio

Chilling.

Mesmerizing.

A play about Rwanda and the radio station RTLM that incited its listeners to genocide. It is a quiet play for the most part: survivors who bear witness to what happened and an hour of otherwise banal radio, except for the subject matter from the soothingly conversational chatter of the radio voices.

It’s a powerful production, a stellar example of what theatre can do. All the more so whilst in Berlin after visiting the Holocaust memorial, itself a brilliant monument down the street from the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag.

More on the production here (English PDF).

At the Theatertreffen in Berlin

I’m in Berlin at the annual Theatertreffen theatre festival, where I’ve had the opportunity to see a wide variety of shows – different companies offering different kinds of performances, tackling different kinds of subjects, offering different kinds of styles … and yet I’ve observed a few features that seem to be there consistently across all these productions. Herewith a few of them:

  • People shout a lot. Not just project their voices, not just raise them in a heightened emotional state. They shout. They rant. They rave. And they wander around the stage while they do it. (Okay, sometimes, they sit in one place.)
  • It rains. I don’t know how expensive it is to handle all that plumbing, but it sure rains a lot in these shows. Global warming?
  • Someone is going to make a point of eating something to express some deep emotional meaning. It might be dirt. It might be a raw potato.
  • Someone, male or female, is going to be wearing a stunning pair of stilettos.
  • Someone is going to get something smeared across his or her chest, face, or other body parts. It might be food, it might be blood, it might be excrement.
  • Someone, usually a man, is going to be reduced to his underwear. And as often as not it’s going to be girlie underwear, too.
  • Someone, usually a man, is going to be subjected to (simulated!) involuntary coitus with another man.
  • The curtain call is going to take a very, very long time.