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for the love of theatre

Feast or famine: sometimes months go by without theatre, but last weekend I saw three plays in two days. On Friday night, Michael Redhill’s “Goodness,” which has been receiving rave reviews here in Toronto and is about to be performed, apparently, in Rwanda. And on Saturday I took the train to Stratford, where friend Lani, with connections at the Festival, treated me to a matinee of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” and I treated myself to “The Importance of being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde in the evening.

Unfortunately, I can’t concur with the raves for the first play, which is about a writer named Michael Redhill investigating the circumstances of a genocide in some unnamed country. Certainly the topic is vitally important. Perhaps you just have to touch on genocide and people will applaud. The play was annoyingly confusing, with jumps in time and character, and completely unbelievable in several instances, such as a purported marriage between an adolescent self-pitying schlump and an attractive blonde. The production got unpleasantly melodramatic – when characters start screaming in each others’ faces, it generally means that the director doesn’t know what he or she is doing or the actors have run out of ideas. The performances were competent or good, the music was wonderful, the whole thing well-meaning, to be sure, but with a whiff of self-righteous pomposity. And they’re going to take it to Rwanda??
I go to the theatre to be changed in some way – to feel, to think, to experience. In this play, none of the characters really changed, no matter how much they screamed, and so I walked out unchanged as well. Unmoved, and more than a little disappointed and annoyed. In writing, there’s an expression, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” But here, it was as if the actors were revelling so in tragedy and disaster, there was no room left for the audience.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?
But then, in Stratford, I was reminded of the true glory of the theatre. I have appeared in “Three Sisters” twice myself, as Irina the youngest sister in a theatre school production in 1971 and as the vile wife Natasha in Vancouver in the mid-seventies. So I thought I knew the play well. But Martha Henry’s sublime production showed me that I didn’t know the play at all. She has brought out the subtleties, the rich nuances of character and circumstance and the humour for which Chekhov is famous.
Among others, I saw the character Chebutykin, the old doctor, played by James Blendick, as if for the first time – his corrosive passivity and despair. Tom McCamus was stunning as the lovesick major, but all the performances were good, even the smallest roles – Fedotik, the bit part of an eager young orderly, as fully portrayed as all the others. The performances were a marvel, the set and lighting perfect, but it’s the depth of understanding that Ms. Henry brought to that complex time and place, to the lives of upper-class Russians adrift in a world about to change, brutally and forever, that will remain with me.
A show like this is why Stratford can justifiably call itself world class: I’ve recently been to plays in the West End of London and in Stratford-on-Avon, and this production could and should be in either place.
In the evening, a wonderful production of the Wilde play, featuring Brian Bedford, who also directed, as Lady Bracknell. I was afraid that having directed himself, the performance would be self-indulgent and over the top, as can easily happen with this marvellous role. But he played it beautifully and with restraint, in a sparkling, hilarious production.
What a thrill to go to this small farm town in the middle of the Ontario countryside and see the best that theatre can offer. It made me very proud. And it made me want to go back as soon as possible to see other shows. Thanks to Lani for putting me up in her comfortable living-room, making it possible for me to afford this treat.
Chebutykin says, at one point, something like, “Look at me – my life is over. I’m an old man. I’m fifty-nine!” Poor Chekhov died of TB at 44, having written some of the most brilliant plays the world would ever know. I, like the doctor, am 59, and feel that my life is getting more interesting all the time. My doctor called today to say that the results of the bone scan I had recently weren’t great; that I am at risk for osteoporosis, need more calcium, etc. etc. She mentioned, swiftly and in passing, that at my next check up, we would do some extra tests; that her predecessor, my former doctor Mimi Divinsky, died of bone cancer – multiple myeloma, which is also what killed my beloved Sarah Torchinsky. Some extra tests, she said lightly.
I felt the finger of fate wavering about in the sky. Will it point at me?
Nah. Too much great theatre to see. No time for that sort of thing.



2 Responses to “for the love of theatre”

  1. Mary says:

    Looks like I just missed you in Stratford. I saw 5 plays there from this past Wed. through Fri. And I agree; Bedford was perfect as Lady Bracknell. Miserable rainy day on Friday, so spent a lot of non-theatre time hanging out in Balzac's, trying not to drink too much caffeine.

  2. beth says:

    Well, Mary, amazing that after this longterm cyber friendship you left Stratford just the day before I arrived. Hope you got some Rheo Thompson chocolates too.

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