By Erin Shields
Playwrights Canada Press
147 pages, $17.95
ISBN 978-1-7709-933-4

Erin Shields’s five-act play (a re-imagining or re-configuring of John Milton’s epical poem) is nothing if not audacious. It does not contest the prevailing critical view that Milton’s poem is magnificent because (in the words of Harold Bloom) “it is persuasively tragic as well as epic it is the tragedy of the fall of Lucifer into Satan, though it declines to show us Lucifer, light-bearer and son of the morning, chief of the stars that will fall. We see only the fallen Satan, though we behold Adam and Eve before, at the very moment of, and after the fall.” It recognizes that its Miltonic source is (along with the Bible, the Iliad, and Shakespeare’s plays) one of “the building blocks of our Western literary inheritance.” Shields takes the Miltonic source seriously, for her script is preceded by Paul Stevens’s essay “Freedom and the Fall,” that begins by calling Milton’s poem “the greatest single poem in the English language” and which has a massive influence that can be felt from old novels (Frankenstein and Moby Dick) to modern movies (Blade Runner and The Fall). (Stevens was once Shields’s professor at the University of Toronto, and she acknowledges his inspiration and encouragement.)

Where Milton used 12 massive books, all ranging from about 600-1,000 lines apiece, to engage readers who wanted to understand the complexity of evil, Shields’s play is less massive and less epical than that poem (also less Shakespearean and Biblical), though its five-act structure incorporates a deliciously satiric and parodic play-within-a-play and its action occurs in Hell, Heaven, and on Earth, and “everywhere in between,” with Time encompassing Biblical time, the seventeenth century, and the present. Shields nods to medieval passion plays by using allegorical figures of Sin and Death, but most of her dramatis personae play dual roles. For instance, Gabriel is also Beelzebub; Urania is a Stage Manager in the play-within-a-play; Zephon is also Satan; Ithuriel is God the Son; and Raphael serves as Narrator and God the Father.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Shields’s play is its own transgressive literary audacity. I am not referring to the sinewy modern diction and turns of phrase, streaked at times with brief quotations directly from Milton. Nor am I referencing contemporary imagery (waterboarding, the Internet, subway bombs, gas chambers). Nor am I referring to her very amusing parody of actors and theatre (though if her representation is a parody of the proto-typical amateur production, it can’t help being the first professional production as well). Her audacity does include characterization of God the Father that cancels omniscience, replacing it with some incertitude—indeed several instances of a theology that is inconsistent with scholastic philosophy. It also extends to a depiction of God the Son as a figure of reasonable compassion, a figure who acknowledges the need for punishing transgression while also espousing forgiveness. There are striking larger-than-life sketches: Moloch as war-monger, Belial as his antithesis; Raphael as a self-recriminating sort of 17th century Horace who seeks to inform and delight as playwright of the play-within-a-play. Adam and Eve are, at best, the embodiment of a modern relationship. They always speak in the third person, and this diminishes their credibility as human creatures, though their duologue has appeal for its poetic braiding. It is only after the Fall that they throb (pun intended) with ardour and yearning. What I do appreciate is Shields’s focus on sexual arousal and lust as results of eating the forbidden fruit. I have always read that fable as an allegory of both invidious epistemological and sexual temptation, and Adam’s new sexual charge rises to a parody of orgasm.

But all these characters pale beside her greatest character—Satan. Her play exploits the fact (again articulated by Bloom) that “the most Shakespearean of all literary characters, after Shakespeare’s own creations is Milton’s Satan, who is the heir of the great hero-villains—Iago, Edmund, Macbeth—and of the darker aspects of Hamlet.” Shields’s Satan is female, one who is inherently and radically dramatic, light-heartedly irreverent, sly, witty (some of her wisecracks are priceless), flamboyant to the nth degree, self-consecrated as a heroine in a struggle to defeat God and his heavenly creatures, and distinguished by a cold-eyed, cold-hearted clarity about 21st century greed and corruption.

Satan opens and closes the play, and her “bookend” monologues are stunning. She emerges out of pandemonium (darkness, screams of pain and horror) and speaks in vivid terms and with vivid imagery: “I woke up in a lake of fire. /Darkness visible was all I could see/as I writhed in the stench of burning sulfur,/charred flesh, singed hair, and melted wings.” Her arrogance is splendid: “I liberated you from the banality of bliss./I released you from the beigeness of contentment./I freed you from blind obedience/to a psychopathic dictator,/to a deranged monarch,/to a bloodthirsty general,/a bully,/a thug:/you’re welcome.” She boasts, she exults, she demands human gratitude. Her ego is as monstrous as her evil, as she proclaims herself “a freedom fighter,/a champion of the underdog,/liberator of the persecuted,” topping off this self-promotion by personifying herself as a combination of Moses, Gandhi, Mandela, Malala, and Dr. King. Her final monologue is even more demonic, not simply because it represents her defeat as victory but because it represents the ultimate in nihilism. She rebukes mankind, concluding with a prediction of horror and terror for future mankind.

However, she also represents a major problem with the play. Her language, while not consistently grand, offsets that of the other characters who often sound flat or disappointingly rudimentary in speech, as in this example from Eve: “I love you, fruit./I love you, tree./I love that I found you and set your taste free/in my mouth, on my tongue that wants more,/and I feel the knowledge bulging in my head.” This is not the flattest example but it does indicate how the language of the script often fails to match the dramatic energy and power inherent in the characters and action. Imagine what a Tom Stoppard or Joe Orton would have done with the language, but, perhaps, this is being unfair to Erin Shields, who feminist retelling remains wickedly smart as it (as the back-cover blurb phrases it) “questions the reasons of the universe, the slow process of evolution and the freedom of knowledge.” Substantial enough achievement, especially in a Canadian landscape dominated by illustrated academic lectures, half-assed parodies, pop documentaries and ethnically-defined or gender-bent revelations of social and political relevance passed off as finished plays.



by Jordan Tannahill
Playwrights Canada Press
108 pages, $ 17.95

by Jordan Tannahill
Playwrights Canada Press
212 pages, 18.95

Jordan Tannahill is currently the rage among Canadian male playwrights, and one reason is his fearlessly transgressive theatrical mode that, while not unique in terms of world theatre, is certainly fizzy, provocative, daringly entrenched in a gay sensibility, and unafraid of tackling history, sociology, and sexuality, all through a “queer” lens. He is now in the top rung of Canadian playwrights, and it has been a spectacularly speedy ascent, beginning, perhaps, with his winning the 2013 Herman Voaden Playwriting Competition, continuing with his Toronto theatre company, Suburban Beast, his alternative Videofag run out of his own home, and so on. He has even published a book, Theatre of the Unimpressed, that argues for theatre “predicated on artistic risk and unafraid of the possibility of failure” (according to Production Dramaturg Kirsten Bowen in her Introduction to the double-play collection cited above). But is Tannahill’s bold “queerness” the real reason for his successes, just as blackness, brownness, transgenderism, or whatever the dominant label is currently celebrated in the country? Canada is currently caught up in a syndrome that celebrates “difference,” without proper regard for aesthetic achievement. And yet, again, fashion becomes a prevailing norm. It is very fashionable now to be labelled black, brown, queer, Asian, et cetera because such categories entrench difference. Of course, there is a historical reason for such a wave of fashion: prejudice (of all stripes) has too long defined Canadian society and the arts. It is time for the new, whether it is better or worse than what has come before.

Too many groups in the Canadian mosaic have been long ignored. (I, for one, belong to a group that cuts across East and West, though its differences are hardly the stuff of popular fashion.) Tannahill is a gay writer, and every gay writer of whatever country, of whatever earlier period has had to deal with either stunning indifference or outright bias. As Edmund White has noted, homosexuals have long been shrugged off as “minor retainers at life’s banquet.” No more. In Canadian theatre, we have had Sky Gilbert and Brad Fraser leading the way to alternative “queer” banquets, and now with Tannahill these banquets have been receiving their fair share of praise. Tannahill is not simply militaristic, didactic, or doctrinaire, but he does not present a hostile or inappropriate superciliousness. He knows, as anyone with a brain and a modicum of experience would, that gay lives are different from straight ones. But he seeks to uncover layers of flawed humanity in characters of the past and present in a way that entertains while simultaneously interrogating history, current events, and sexuality. Instead of gay “sickness” he offers queer authenticity, exploring not simply explosive and whimsical appeals of gay sex, but more meaningful affinities such as shared but conflicted interests and lifestyles (Late Company) or terrorising historical records, albeit wildly re-shaped and re-told (Botticelli in the Fire and Sunday in Sodom) with their particular “queerness” turned inside-out.

Late Company is not a major work; it is an apprentice piece in a meaningful sense, nicely set up and thickened by passion, but its debts to Edward Albee and Yazmin Reza are palpable. This is not cited to downgrade it, but to clarify its quality. The set-up is clear: a year after the suicide of their teenage son Joel, who was bullied to his death, Debora and Michael Shaun-Hastings invite the parents and their bully-son to dinner. Each character is succinctly defined, though Michael’s smart-aleck remarks and pretentious phraseology do become irritating. Tannahill shows wit (“Sleeping with Leonard Cohen does not make her an artist”), and What is meant to lead to closure turns into a heated exchange of intentions and passions. The bourgeois setting and its lifestyle is neat, though facile satire on pretentious politesse, but there is ample reason to celebrate the young playwright’s acute ear for dialogue at the outset. But too soon does Tannahill fall into an Albee-trap of worked-up but vague symbolism (“Why do you never hear it? It always sounds like someone’s upstairs.”) Echoes of the unspecific terror that infiltrates the living room in A Delicate Balance. The play falters a bit this way, but seems to find its way again—to the heart of grief, guilt, recrimination, and forgiveness. And the playwright well understands the emotional impact of minimal dialogue and silence at appropriate moments—as when the grieving mother of the dead son cries in the kitchen and away from the “bloodbath” in the dining room. Tannahill ends the drama with a terse but powerful image that I don’t wish to divulge, but which, while seeming melodramatically forced, reveals his acute sense of theatrical effect.

Tannahill extends his range in the dual play collection. The shorter piece, Sunday in Sodom, is (in Tannahill’s own words) “a feminist retelling of the mythic destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as told by Lot’s wife; a story recounted in the holy books of all three Abrahamic  faiths.” First exposed to the biblical version as a young boy, Tannahill now tries to imagine what went through her mind “as she decided to disobey god and turn back to behold his wrath.” Called Edith, she is turned into wife and mother situated in an American town that is both mythically Biblical and contemporary. Lot is old and incontinent, forever summoning her on his cellphone to run errands. Edith is compassionate towards young Isaac, traumatized and mentally unsettle by his father Abraham’s cruel murderous intent. She recounts how Lot welcomed two American soldiers into their house, the fury unleashed in town, and the chain of events leading up to the fateful destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But apart from some wry irony and satire in a modern mode, the most effective twist is in Edith’s long, final monologue with its searing emotional ending.


Botticelli in the Fire is the more daring of the two plays, its motive being to rescue a gay hero from remaining a mere footnote in an art-history textbook. But it will certainly shock art aficionados to think of the artist as a mere footnote, though Tannahill means that official histories of the artist fail to locate him at the centre of an alternative history, one that the playwright dares to write in a vividly compelling manner. In Tannahill’s rendition, Sandro Botticelli is an irrepressible libertine, renowned as much for his weekend-long orgies as for his early Renaissance masterpieces. A rampant sodomite, he has a sexual relationship with a young assistant, Leonardo da Vinci (itself a crime punishable by burning at the pyre) but he complicates matters further by an affair with Claire, wife of Lorenzo de Medici, while painting her in the guise of Venus (“The Birth of Venus”). Alas, the adultery is uncovered (in a strikingly sensual and literal fashion), and Botticelli eventually has to consign all his heretical, immoral books, nude paintings, musical instruments, et cetera to Girolamo Savonarola’s bonfire of the vanities in order to save his own life. However, Botticelli does save his most famous (and notorious) painting (the afore-mentioned “The Birth of Venus”) by disguising it rudely. Tannihill poses two ineluctable questions in this drama: Why did Botticelli participate in the horrendous bonfire, and why did he save the single painting?

In language that is rife with modern vulgarisms (“fucking” as an all-purpose word; “shitstorm”; “sit your ass down,” et cetera) and 21st century technology (cellphones, microphones, television talk shows) and media references (karaoke, Cyndi Lauper), with characters broadly sketched but pulsing with stage life, and with flagrant sexuality often on naked display, the play is a crowd-pleaser. What thickens its relevance are the frequent connections made with current events, especially in the U.S.A. of the ultra-right Republican Party and its arch demagogue, Trump. Savonarola is easily represented as a Renaissance Trump for “mostly speaking to the souls of the illiterate and ignorant…where most of his base seems to be.” Facile, perhaps, but necessary when virtually half of the U.S. seems to be impervious to truth and ethics. I enjoyed the play on the whole, while questioning some of its meta-reflexiveness and finding the alternative ending to be a case of wish-fulfillment fantasy.

The collection includes the Playwright’s Note, as well as Kirsten Bowen’s essay, “Re-Imagining History,” both of which are interesting, though limited. Bowen, for instance, links questions posed by Botticelli in the Fire to the 21st century: “Why have pleasure and sexuality been so readily scapegoated for political ends in both of these eras? How does a seemingly progressive, liberal society allow a demagogue to rise in power? What is the artist’s obligation to their community versus their art? If called to sacrifice, which is of greater value—our art or our people?” The answers to the first two seem ordinary enough: it is society that scapegoats for its own selfish ends, and it is the basest among us that permit a demagogue to flourish virtually uninhibited. The third and fourth questions are pricklier. The artist’s prime obligation, it seems to me, is to his art and only secondarily to his community. In the fourth case, who decides the valorization and the sacrifice? If it is the artist, then it is art that is of greater value for it is only through art that “our people” are memorialized and extra value attached to them.









(Coming of Age in Post-War England)
By Michael Bawtree
Like No Other Press
374 pages, $24.95 (paper)

(Adventures in Canadian Theatre)
By Michael Bawtree
Like No Other Press
366 pages, $25 (paper)

One of the salient things in the two Michael Bawtree’s memoirs under review (there is a third volume yet to come) is a sense of fortuitous “accident” and self-fashioning.  Bawtree (who has had a long career as playwright, director, journalist, educator, and actor) conducts us down a long memory lane with many twists and turns, without in any sense wearing out his welcome because his writing is eloquent, amusing in an understated way, and instructive. Born in Newcastle, Australia, in 1937, to an English father (Raymond) and an Australian mother (Kathleen), he grew up in England, when it was deep in its rather rancid class-consciousness. Bawtree’s father ran a gamut of professions (bookkeeper, failed pig farmer, country hotel proprietor of sorts with his resourceful wife, and the creator of a failed farm service operation), and his father’s ancestors came from a superior artisan class, with some being Dissenters (and, therefore, ineligible for entry to Oxford or Cambridge). No one before his father’s generation had university degrees, and of his five uncles, only two received higher education that led in their cases to ordination in the Church of Scotland.

However, although dissent is in his family history, Bawtree doesn’t really register as a maverick except when (in The Best Fooling) he espouses a middle-class anarchism (by way of academia) and a weird, self-defeating ideology of “un-led theatre” in his career as director and artistic director in Vancouver and Ottawa. Both volumes of his memoirs reveal how he transcended his family working-class background and how England and, eventually, Canada made him. Bawtree’s fine way with language gives his writing a sheen that speaks to his boyhood in boarding schools, and education at Radley College and Oxford (where his talents for languages, photography, and music came to the fore). Distinguished names (Peter Cook, Laurence Olivier, C.S. Lewis, Christopher Ricks, Bill Glassco, et al) are dropped into the narrative—sometimes too briefly—but never simply for snob value, although many of these names would probably be unfamiliar to readers unfamiliar with English cultural history of Bawtree’s youth and early adulthood. Glassco, however, should be on the mind of any Canadian familiar with the Alternative Theatre Movement, and Glassco becomes a crucially important figure in the second volume that carries us into Bawtree’s occasionally turbulent involvement with Canadian theatre.

It was the three years at Oxford that gave Bawtree a chance to decide whether he and his peers would be “loners or bons viveurs, idle or industrious, self-deprecating or arrogant, showy or reserved, respectful or contemptuous.” The university was “a pressure cooker of activity” because of the shortness of the three terms (8 weeks each), and the standard of scholarship was far higher than that found in North America: an undergraduate degree could be earned only after a candidate’s successfully writing nine three-hour papers in four and a half days, covering the entire gamut of English, from Anglo-Saxon poetry to 1910. The cut-off year, however, betrayed an endemic snobbery, a condition once described by Anthony Burgess as “a tradition of wariness of approach to the study of contemporary letters…It is in the European academic tradition to stick to the safe past, and the past is a couple of days before yesterday.” It was a snobbery that also tainted such venerable Canadian institutions as McGill and the University of Toronto for the longest time.

As Far As I Remember encompasses its narrator’s family vacations to the seashore, wanderlust, and two years of British military service, when he came face to face with British imperial politics and experienced some of the civil war in Cyprus. But as amusing or as instructive as these sections are in his chronicle, an equally serious undercurrent in the narrative is what he calls his “secret malaise,” first recognized in adolescence and then deepened in youth. This is the love that he hardly dares to name explicitly, but one that is felt as something dangerous yet essential to his real nature. Bawtree’s fleeting encounters with a few women end in disappointment, as he maintains a protracted, secret battle between his two selves. The “malaise” gets more explicitly exposed in The Best Fooling, a more “Canadian” narrative because it settles questions for Bawtree about life and career in his adopted country where he is free to fashion himself more definitively than in post-war England.

How Bawtree came to Canada marks one of the most significant happy “accidents” in the second memoir, that is, possibly, less charmingly nostalgic than its predecessor but far more pungent. He and Bill Glassco (“extremely modest, even diffident in his manner”) were part of the Worcester Buskins at Oxford, where Glassco dazzled Bawtree and others as a pianist and composer. In the early 60s, Glassco excited Bawtree with a glowing report on the burgeoning radical changes in Canadian culture and theatre through such things as the CBC, National Film Board, the Crest Theatre, and the Stratford Festival. Bawtree was seduced, gratefully accepted Glassco and his wife’s generous hospitality, and gained entry to a circle of influential cultural figures, such as Robert Weaver and Esse Jungh. It also helped that Glassco’s father was wealthy and was able to hire Bawtree as an editor for the Royal Commission report he was preparing on the CBC.

Other happy accidents occur in the course of the second volume. Bawtree befriends actress Helen Burns, who was married to Michael Langham, and this leads to Langham’s appointing Bawtree as dramaturge, and later commissioning him to write a new play (The Last of the Tsars) after Langham’s deep dissatisfaction with Nicholas Romanoff by American writer William Kinsolving.  Later, Jean Gascon offers him the position of literary manager at Stratford, but Tom Hendry decides to remain rather than leave his post, so Bawtree seems to be completely out of luck until Gascon gets Hamilton Southam (Director General of the National Arts Centre) to hire Bawtree as artistic director of the experimental Studio Theatre, where Bawtree fails with his risky selection of a decidedly non-Canadian subject for his maiden play: the Spanish-American War of 1898 in Cuba!

The Best Fooling (with its very title drawn from Shakespeare) provides important insights into attitudes and practices concerning Canadian theatre. This volume substantiates some of the principal complaints of our ultra-nationalists about colonial romanticism—the syndrome that infects any colonial society that looks to Colonial Headquarters for approval. The Stratford Festival is summarized as an institution devoted to “the world of the classics—to the old English culture that had been nurtured in me from my schooldays.” This honesty extends to Bawtree’s depictions of Langham as “the consummate Englishman in his manner and clothes” and of Helen Burns (actress and Langham’s wife at the time) as someone “capable of spouting off some fairly arrogant comments about the parochial place she found herself in.” Such arrogance is, of course, resented by the likes of John Colicos and Douglas Rain in particular. Langham is acknowledged, of course, as a brilliant director, but Bawtree identifies a major flaw in him and other British guest directors: “The fact is that Stratford had been run for years by directors (including Michael Langham) who had a faintly colonial attitude towards their Canadian company, and [who] did not particularly expect or encourage creative participation on the part of their actors.” An ironic fact is that Bawtree’s most successful artistic ventures at the festival came with British designers (Leslie Hurry, Desmond Heeley) and casts (Tony van Bridge, Jane Casson, Nicholas Pennell, Pat Galloway, Barry MacGregor, Carole Shelley, and Mary Savidge) mainly in Restoration and 18th century comedies, so while his generalization may well be accurate, it omits another point of view: the plain fact is that without these “fairly colonial” Langhams and others, there would have been no Stratford, and Canada would still be mired in retrograde nostalgia for a cultural nationalism devoted to documentary plays and collective collaborations, performed in basements or backspaces. Moreover, an astute observer would well note that Canada today is far more open to the neo-colonial influence of the United States than to the older ways of England.

Cultural icons appear in the narrative, some serving as heroes (John Hayes, William Hutt, and Gabriel Charpentier), some as villains (notably William Wylie and Robin Phillips). Bawtree records his admiration for John Hirsch, a talented man who, to me, was always a contradiction of artist and hack, cultural commissar and sinister politician—a devious figure who fattened himself off the foment of nationalism. Robin Phillips, on the other hand, is summarized as “that cold, elegant angel-fish,” who manages (in Bawtree’s account) to “charm” his way with the acting company, intimidate the Board, and skilfully sabotage Bawtree’s tenure at the festival by a sort of benign neglect. Bawtree is certainly within his rights to colour his memoir by his own perspective on things, and Phillips is no longer around to contradict him. What is more important to the general reader than any “villains” or personality clashes is Bawtree’s rather loose aesthetic. He recounts how he became radicalized by a visit to Colombia where he witnessed “dangerous” political theatre, and subsequently dreamed of “a ‘dangerous’ Canadian theatre.” The rest of his memoir gives an account of his flirtations and eventual disillusionment with this dream that could, perhaps, never be realized, given that it had no real plot, no story, no shape.

More accidents, more failure. At newly-founded Simon Fraser University (where he is appointed professor), his gamble with the Centralia Incident proves to be “unfinished business” that is never really finished. Ultimately, even his tenure at this university (where John Juliani and other radicals hold sway) ends in fatigue and disillusionment. There is a savage god at work, indeed, as there is in his long, turbulent relationship with Colin Bernhardt (the love of his life), and Bawtree does not scant on his emotional pain and confusion about this somewhat Shakespearean drama. Yet, once again, there are happy “accidents”: a creative friendship with Maureen Forrester that helps with Bawtree’s founding of Comus Music Theatre; and American generosity south of the border that cannot be matched in Canada where artists are prone to encounter grudging recognition, minus pleasure in “ambitious energy.” The contemporary case of Robert Lepage and the whole absurd controversy over cultural appropriation can be entered into evidence.

The ending of The Best Fooling is tinted with pathos but leads to a new beginning. Bawtree discovers painfully how theatre politics can break your heart in more ways than one. He loses his status, job, and home in Stratford, and anticipates losing his lover, Colin, long bedevilled by various psychological distresses. But in 1977, Bawtree is on his way for the first time to the Banff Centre, where he will play a major role in the following decade. And then, we know from his biography that Nova Scotia beckons as well. That fortune awaits us in his third (as yet unfinished) volume.


William Hutt: Soldier Actor 


Jeffrey Round‘s review

Jul 24, 2018
it was amazing


WILLAM HUTT SOLDIER ACTOR by Keith Garebian (Guernica) reviewed by Jeffrey Round

Critic Keith Garebian has illumined the life and career of William Hutt, in print, since his 1988 William Hutt: a Theatre Portrait, followed in 1995 by a collection of essays written by Hutt’s colleagues, Masks and Faces, and now with William Hutt: Soldier Actor.

Garebian’s assertion is that, despite maintaining a career anchored in Canada for more than five decades, Hutt was one of the greatest actors of his time and comparable to the likes of Laurence Olivier (Garebian’s favourite thespian.) Indeed, the consensus of both critics and colleagues is that Hutt was a man too big for his time and place, but who went on to enlarge the scope of both with his considerable talents.

As a biography, Soldier Actor is more than comprehensive, with a dazzling array of photographs and personal documents, including letters and notes on Hutt’s craft, some of which Garebian calls “unprinted ramblings” made available only after Hutt’s death in 2007 at the age of 82.

As evidenced in many ways in this book, Hutt the man was an individual of notable personal integrity. As a soldier, he went to war and earned a medal of honour without firing a shot. (He was in the medical corps, where his bravery was considered exemplary.) What the war taught him, Hutt contended years later, was “the inestimable value of a single human being.”

He was also actively homosexual in a time when being openly gay was difficult, if not downright dangerous. His integrity, however, demanded honesty in this as with other regards, and Garebian does not shy away from revealing details of Hutt’s personal life.

The body of the book, of course, deals with Hutt’s career, from his beginnings as an unschooled actor who went on to work on some of the world’s most famous stages alongside many of the most acclaimed actors of his time. The text fairly sparkles with names and anecdotes, but this is not a tell-all exposé. Rather, it is a recounting of the life of a remarkable actor as it unfolded alongside Canada’s nascent theatrical scene.

Hutt worked during the debut season of Stratford and was there for many seasons. He was said to have giggled on first hearing that Shakespeare was to be presented in small-town Canada. At the time, Stratford was so small that Hutt had to find a map to locate it, having “heard rumours that it was in Ontario, but that was all I knew.”

His colleagues at that auspicious beginning included people like Christopher Plummer, Kate Reid, William Shatner, and Tyrone Guthrie, one of the founding lights of Stratford. The names are impressive and the list grows as Hutt’s career flourished and his creative genius expanded with each role he took on. Yet somehow he remained indelibly Canadian and famously never gave up his Canadian accent, even while performing Shakespeare, a revelation in its time.

In what lay his genius? Garebian calls it Hutt’s “rare ability to absorb audiences within his circle of illusion,” painting a clear picture of how Hutt not only thought as an actor but also how he appeared onstage. Garebian minutely examines Hutt’s ability to mine roles for depth and a fresh approach, whether it be in giving Hamlet’s Polonius more respect than is often accorded him or in giving Long Day’s Journey into Night’s James Tyrone a more sympathetic turn as a man brought down by his failures as a human being. It is at this point, Garebian writes, that “acting ceases to look like acting.”

On meeting the author, and learning he was writing a book on Hutt, actor Sigourney Weaver told Garebian that he “couldn’t have a better a subject.” She might just as easily have said that Hutt couldn’t have had a better biographer.

Jeffrey Round is an award-winning author. His latest book is The God Game (Dundurn).


(Nora Polley on Life as a Stratford Festival Stage Manager)
By Shawn DeSouza-Coelho
ECW Press
394 pages
$22.95 (paperback)

Nora Polley’s very long tenure as a Stage Manager at the Stratford Festival was a distinguished one. Daughter of Vic Polley, administrative director for the Festival, she certainly had an easier entrée into the organization than many others, but she proved her mettle and deserved all the praise and special honours she eventually received. Polley evidently kept a diary, from which portions are used in this rather peculiar biography. Not strictly an “as told to” book, it presents a challenge to readers who need to persevere through many unnecessary devices and flat passages to reach a few valuable revelations.

After a Prologue in 1969, in which she breathlessly recounts how she fetched coffee for Nathan Cohen during his visit to Trinity College Drama Society, followed by an offer from Jean Gascon to become stage manager, the narrative wobbles and staggers for a long time. Overly generous quotations from Shakespearean scripts (sometimes repeated three times in one fell swoop) with parallel descriptions of technical cues for sound, lighting, and scene changes slow the rhythm. In one instance, the quotations run for the equivalent of six full pages, succeeding in little other than trying a reader’s patience.

There is a great deal of name-dropping (which is, perhaps, inevitable in a long career), but only trivial information as to why many of the dropped names are important. Polley’s capsule comments are frequently restricted to trivial adjectives about looks and coiffure: Leo Ciceri is called a “handsome actor from Montreal”; Barry MacGregor “a handsome British actor with lush black hair”; Rory Feore (brother to Colm) is described as having “short wavy hair and a constant vibration,” though it is not at all clear what he is vibrating to. Often only first names are used, and, for instance, only real theatre fans or scholars can determine who the visiting American actress (simply called Kathleen) was who walked out of a production because she couldn’t cope with Robin Phillips’s way of working. (It was Kathleen Widdoes.)

The narrative is highly idiosyncratic in other ways, exposing the lack of good editing for this book. Sometimes allusions are made to a character in a play without reference to the play’s title. There is also a strong sense of death that lingers as Polley recalls the passing of many family and theatre figures. There is a dramatic instance when Eric Donkin drops dead during a rehearsal, but there is also one strange episode where Leo Ciceri’s death is recounted in the middle of a description of a family turkey dinner, without any family member apparently having second thoughts about pausing over a wing or leg or gravy.

Fortunately, there are nuggets in the book. These are not usually the photos, which are generally too small and indistinct to be of much value to anyone other than an earnest archivist. What is of more interest is that Nora Polley reveals her vulnerabilities and antipathies on and off the job: a failed marriage; the deaths of relatives, friends, and colleagues; her triumph over breast cancer; some special friendships; a distaste for theatre politics (especially as manipulated by John Hirsch, who exacted his revenge against anyone who liked Phillips); her love-hate relationship with actors over their “bullshit political games” (to which I can relate with deep-down sympathy, knowing as I do that the bullshit has a whole lot to do with unjustified egomania); her genuine sentimentality for respected or beloved artistic directors (such as Phillips, David William, John Neville, Richard Monette); and her true feelings (not all positive) about her vocation and the direction of the Festival.

The best parts of the book are the glimpses into the sometimes quixotic, perplexing, unsettling natures of genuine artists. We learn that Maggie Smith wears only custom-made sable fur false eyelashes. We get to spy on Robin Phillips banging on timpani to pace actors or his fiddling with sliders on a dimmer board to set the mood. We also learn how he elicited marvellously spontaneous discoveries from actors in rehearsal. We discover the professional loyalty and consideration of Martha Henry and Seana McKenna who refused to sign new contracts unless Stage Managers had their own issues settled first. We learn yet again of William Hutt’s dry humour, Richard Monette’s early shyness about his body, and John Neville’s first duty as artistic director to rehire company personnel who hadn’t been asked back by Hirsch. Each reader will probably have his or her own favourite moments. Mine include Polley’s shocking discovery of and her pathos for the physical and, perhaps, mental deterioration of Robin Phillips shortly before his death, and, more tenderly, a vignette of Sara Topham reciting lines from Juliet as she sits beside Richard Monette’s grave.

While far from truly coherent, the book is the product of Nora Polley’s love for her vocation. A propos her career, she claims that “If anybody notices you doing your job, you’ve just made a mistake.” Polley is hard on herself for one big mistake she once made years ago, but she missed only two performances as SM all her career, and never through her own fault. She calls herself “stupidly lucky” to have worked with Phillips. She is too modest. The Festival has been stupidly lucky to have had her services for over half a century. And, ultimately, theatre lovers may feel lucky to have a book of some of her cherished memories.


By Ludovic Fouquet. (Trans. Rhonda Mullins)
401 pages, $29.9

ISBN: 978-0-88922-774-3
visual laboratory

Ludovic Fouquet opens his detailed study of Robert Lepage’s theatre with a list of described images:

a man conversing on the phone while sitting on a bed, and the stage opening             sideways to reveal another part of the bedroom;

a front-load washing machine transforming into a goldfish bowl when a video image of” a swimming fish is projected onto a windowed door,” and then the space opening like “the portal of a space capsule” through which the actor climbs;

a TV screen spinning around, blinding the audience, but when it turns back to the        actor, he has turned into “an old woman asleep in a wheelchair”;

“a mirror inclines and the actor takes flight, pirouettes, and disappears.”

All these images are from Lepage’s solo show The Far Side of the Moon (2000), and they contribute to the director’s reputation as “a magician of images.” Foquet underlines the fact (he does an inordinate amount of such underlining) that Lepage’s projects have been built around “a specific idea of the stage, fostering a wide range of distinctive effects, from the stage box, to the puppet theatre, to the screen.” In this way, Lepage develops his enticing theatrical language, “a visual, sound-based, musical, and only incidentally text-based language.” And this is why, argues Fouquet, that Lepage’s dramatic universe “must be approached from the point of view that stage design is a visual laboratory and the theatrical image is its apparatus.”

This contention seems sensible at first, but a closer look at the postulates raises some unsettling questions for those who are not simply Lepage devotees. For one thing, Fouquet’s imperial imperative (“must be approached”) is an academic decree rather than an intellectual lure. Second, a laboratory, visual or otherwise, implies scientific experimentation and measurement rather than artistic risk, and imagery is surely only more than apparatus. My objections to Fouquet’s tone grow more intense the more I read into his scholarly book that is inarguably important to the field of imagistic theatre. But before I expand my criticism, I shall acknowledge the book’s merits. This English-language translation comes eight years after the original French text, and it will undoubtedly appeal to artists, teachers, and students who wish to understand and draw inspiration from Lepage’s theatrical creativity. Its notes, chronology of productions, bibliography, and index observe academic propriety, and its text makes it amply clear that Fouquet is steeped in multimedia and knowledge about stage imagery. Moreover, the generous amount of black and white photographs of sets, design sketches, stage models, costumes, and actors is of real benefit to scholars and general readers. Every Lepage production seems to have been covered till 2014, and Fouquet is detailed to a fault, with virtually no visual effect going unexplained.

Structured in four parts and an epilogue, the book covers wide areas, ranging from two models (puppets/objects and the cube) in the visual laboratory to technological echoes (light and shadow, mirror, photography, cinema, video, digitalization, sound). He notes other experiments (such as orientalism and the baroque), as well as the lure of geometry (cubes, mills,  circles) and continuing collective creation, and concludes with some discussion of Lepage’s forays into opera. There are many splendid instances of explication, such as his explanation of how objects populate Lepage’s stage space, and how suitcases, backpacks, duffle bags, shoes, glass balls, small baskets, dolls, cigarettes, lighters, screens, mats, mirrors, cameras, microphones, and puppets provide references to our mundane world while resonating as emblems of other things. Fouquet argues that this image-based theatre is primarily “a theatre of perception,” and that Lepage’s world is based on “an architectonic view of the  stage,” with the overall shape of a piece changing through sequential combinations of elements such as lighting, video, film, photography, geometry, and sound. But such a view opens itself to challenges. Is this plenitude of elements and effects an enrichment or a confusion of aesthetic realms? How important, for example is it to see the front and back of an actor simultaneously? How does such visual wizardry illuminate character or text? Fouquet never pauses to raise these questions in the course of his breathless excitement, much less answer them.

When he celebrates Lepage’s ability to use video to divide the stage into different facets of the same reality that expresses the “visual architecture” of a story, he alludes to the film The Boston Strangler that exploited the split-screen technique, but without ever considering whether such an effect divides the viewer’s gaze and frustrates the focus. Sometimes he is clearly unaware that his sweeping praise is freighted with ironies that undercut his claims–as when he shows how objects and actors share the stage. With Lepage, the actor is encouraged to become a co-author during the production process, and is invited to participate in story development, but the actor does not seem to recognize that he is dwarfed by technology or so immersed in the image that he becomes its prisoner. Strangely, Fouquet does articulate this latter point himself, making it sound like a virtue rather than a flaw.

I recognize that all theatre is not text-based and that there is unquestionable beauty, ineffable mystery, and layered richness in Lepage’s best productions. Fouquet is justified in praising the set for The Seven Streams of the River Ota (1994) for its interchangeable, mobile, transparent screens, or Lepage’s ingenious use of an inclining set in Elsinore (1995), or the director’s idea of a film-within-a-film in Polygraphe (1987), echoing Lepage’s demand that theatre speak a contemporary language, and above all, a visual one. Fouquet is also excellent in showing how Lepage dramatizes technology. But his scholarship is repeatedly extravagant but lacking in critical depth. For example, he never considers whether technology remains cold, whether in being its own message it doesn’t necessarily add or extend meaning. While glowing with praise for the stage design of The Tempest (2013) and its recreation of the theatre La Scala (Madrid), as if it were a sectional view, he does not demonstrate how this illuminates Shakespeare. He is quite content to accept Lepage as a technician or trickster, even celebrating when Lepage engages the audience by revealing the trick, but isn’t this facility superficial? Or to put it a different way, does not form outshine and swamp content by drawing attention to itself? It would be tantamount to a magician explaining how he performs his tricks or an actor explaining his technique.

Putting aside instances of academic jargon that have the sound of learned lumber, I do appreciate Fouquet’s discussion of Lepage’s calculated use of disorientation via a propensity for the foreign (Japan in The Seven Streams of the River Ota or Eonnagata (2009); Mexico in La Casa Azul (2001)) and an empirical experiencing of culture, just as I value his section on meta-theatre, but he is confusing about Lepage’s baroque and not very useful in his exposition of Lepage’s Shakespearean productions. He and Lepage seem to subscribe to “an aesthetic of the heterogeneous and of saturation,” but neither he nor Lepage engages with the question of baroque over-ornamentation, exaggerated colour, and density of irregular form almost bursting out of a frame or space. Fouquet’s descriptions and analyses do not probe questions of epistemology. Nor do they appear cool-headed. For instance, he does not question Lepage’s deliberate avoidance of the word “theatrical” in the 1990s when the director founded Ex Machina and justified this eschewal by claiming that theatre “is no longer an exclusive concern.” Quebec theatre had already begun to demystify the text and to widen the idea of the creator and of “continued collective exchanges,” but Lepage opted explicitly (Fouquet explains) for “a visual laboratory in which we see both the images and ourselves as audience looking at the image as it echoes to the point that we are drawn into the image’s centre.” But even more than this, “we essentially go into a box and discover the infinite.” Well, irony of ironies: the “deus” has been removed from the machine, or, rather, the “deus” is the machine that enables us to discover the infinite–though neither Lepage nor Foquet could summon up any metaphysic or theology to define this “infinite.”

True, Fouquet does acknowledge some of Lepage’s failures (such as The Dragon’s Trilogy (2003) and Eonnagata (2009), but sounds strangely fuzzy about the reasons for the failures. But worse than this, he fails to recognize some of the implications of his own assertions. After hundreds of pages of gushing praise of Lepage’s image-based productions, he is compelled to recognize the importance of opera libretto in feeding Lepage’s imagination. After reams of description of Lepage’s use of technology, he acknowledges Lepage’s recourse to a simpler mode of presentation in The Nightingale (2009) and The Tempest (2013), without counting on “technological crutches.” The phrase is Lepage’s, and it is extremely revealing. However, Fouquet merely takes him at his word without considering the implications.  Fouquet is also quick to accept other critics’ inflated praise of Lepage without demonstrating critical distance. When he quotes Wagner expert, Georges Nicholson, who praises Lepage for a vision “that Wagner would have wanted,” there is a virtually magisterial assumption that both Nicholson and Lepage actually know what the German composer wanted. This is an intentional fallacy that no real critic should abide. But Fouquet does not stop there: his breathless hero-worship impels him to a virtually apocalyptic conclusion, a sweeping generalization where Lepage’s theatre becomes a laboratory, “making the scientist a storyteller, the researcher an artist, the actor an author, and the singer an acrobat…Everything is upended, but nothing breaks. Or more, everything is upended and everything is transformed, leaving us in wonder, ready to become chemists ourselves.” Fouquet may think that his controlling metaphor is poetic; however, I see it as intrinsically flawed. Theatre can be many things to many people, and there is a strong modern or post-modern inclination to representing theatre as a laboratory of some kind, and there is no question that the best productions often have a magical alchemy. However, how does such a metaphor turn the spectator into a chemist, especially if the formulae and apparatus are controlled by the director as auteur?

So, while this book is of unquestionable value to theatre scholars and Lepage devotees, its intrinsic limitations (repetitions, dreary minutiae, and almost breathless praise) work against its being more than a formidable championing performance. Academics will love it, while critical general readers might not share this love to the same extent.