THE LAST SHIP

New Book and Direction by by Lorne Campbell
Music & Lyrics by Sting
A Mirvish Presentation at the Princess of Wales Theatre
Opened February 19, 2019

Reviewed by Maria Heidler

Ensemble of The Last Ship (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Sting – that “Englishman in New York” – is now in Toronto at the Princess of Wales Theatre, and starring in his personal homage to his hometown of Wallsend in North East England and to the ship-building community that formed him. The Last Ship is inspired by his 1991 album The Soul Cages and opened in Chicago in 2014, moving to Broadway for a three-month run. Although nominated for 2 Tonys, it was not a financial success. He re-worked it and it opened to great acclaim back in the U.K. in the port city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Then followed a U.K. tour, and it was in Dublin that David Mirvish saw the production and arranged for Sting to bring it to Toronto where, back in 1978 with his band The Police, he’d played The Horseshoe Tavern and The Edge. How would this tale from 1986 Britain fare in 2019 Toronto?

The set is a triptych of tension with two staired pylons dividing a vast expanse of industrial wall. Above, ominous clouds make their way across the sky and yet, to one side, a group of six musicians laugh amongst themselves. Then the actors amble on, chatting, then waving at audience members. They shout out greetings and the audience responds. We Are One! The atmosphere of solidarity is set. The Tale begins. The cast sing an anthem of their lives. It is who they are and why they are. It ends on a chord of hope – but we are soon to be enveloped in that triptych of tension.

Three story arcs evolve: 1) The fight against the death of the ship-building industry and a community’s livelihood. 2) The fight against death in the human body. 3) The fight to prevent a re-opening of the wound of desertion. Director and book-writer, Lorne Campbell, skillfully entwines these stories, which span back across seventeen years, with a flow of cinematic projections that evoke a world both foreign yet somehow universally familiar. Sting’s music and lyrics are both witty and poignant with strong references to a culture deeply rooted in its folk origins. This is supported by the use of a melodeon in the orchestration and by rhythms of jigs and waltzes.

Sting leading the ensemble in The Last Ship (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

The cast are a superb unit portraying the many hurdles a community has to face when the world as they know it is about to end. Among them there is the carpenter poet (Marc Akinfolarin) who freely quotes from Greek Mythology to Dylan Thomas; the Union boss (Joe Caffrey) who quotes Tennyson; the town drunkard (Kevin Wathen) who “can’t afford to go on strike!”; the Foreman (Sting) who, in spite of illness, tries to keep a cool head when all about are losing theirs; Gideon – both the radgie (crazy) teenager (Barney Wilkinson) and the adult (Oliver Savile) who returns to his home after 17 years of pursuing his dream to find he has a daughter, Ellen (Sophie Reid), by his erstwhile girlfriend Meg (young:Jade Sophia Vertannes/adult: Frances McNamee); and the Shipyard Owner (Sean Kearns) who uses Government Policy to justify his demands.

We are taken through the various roads of negotiation and defiance involving both the men and the women (Gideon living up to his Biblical name by finally becoming a leader of men!) until the workers take matters into their own hands and complete the building of the doomed ship (ironically named “Utopia”). So…all’s well that ends well (the play is littered with delicious aphorisms)…or is there a “sting” in the tale? Unfortunately – Yes! In keeping with the triple theme, I got stung thrice! 1: The Foreman dies before the ship is launched and there is a scene with his coffin on the stage as his widow Peggy, (played with strength and dignity by Jackie Morrison) courageously insists on pursuing his sense of purpose. This felt maudlin and contrived, and the scene would have benefited without the presence of the coffin. 2: The “Geordie” accent is one of the most musical yet challenging of British accents to portray on stage. A lot of fine vocal work was wasted through lack of diction and/or sound quality. 3: The piece is too long. It would lose none of its power to cut 30 minutes out of it. “Time and tide wait for no man!”

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PRINCE HAMLET

Christine Horne as Hamlet (photo: Brownen Sharp)
Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio (photo: Brownen Sharp)

Adapted and Directed by Ravi Jain
A Why Not Theatre Production Presented
by Canadian Stage
At Berkeley Street Theatre, Feb.6-24, 2019

Mud plays an emblematic role in Ravi Jain’s gender-bending, racially mixed, modern-dress take on Hamlet. Small and large piles of dirt are part of Lorenzo Savoini’s sparse décor: brick back wall, three long vertical mirrors at the back wall, two chandeliers, some chairs, and a central rectangular platform raised a few inches off the stage floor. Gertrude and Claudius rut hard on a mud heap, their sexual position leaving nothing to the imagination and their orgasmic cries topped only by the prince’s outcry that precedes his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. In her madness, Ophelia collapses into a mud pile, soiling herself in despair. And when Claudius exposes his tortured conscience (“O my offence is rank”), he does so while observing himself in a mirror and kneeling on the same mud-heap he had used for intercourse with Gertrude. This is the same scene where Hamlet stops himself from murdering his foul, usurping uncle, but he has nothing more than a fistful of mud with which to commit the deed. Later, in the graveyard scene, he is given a handful of mud rather than Yorick’s skull, presumably an ironic memento mori. Surprisingly, there is no pit or grave for Ophelia’s burial, and the fierce physical struggle between Laertes and the prince occurs on the central platform that has a little mud scattered about.

So, the mud images, some dramatically startling, others bafflingly at odds with the text, take shape at some cost to the production, as does the presentation of Horatio by Dawn Jani Birley entirely in dumb show or sign language. This performance is vividly intense but rather archly conceived for a hearing-impaired audience. The problem is that the “signing” (that begins when each player signs his or her real first name and then the name of the character to be portrayed) concludes only two and a half hours later with an epilogue that mimes the dead prince’s soul to heaven. This directorial choice impedes the dramatic rhythm, delays or interrupts the spoken dialogue in virtually every scene, and frustrates anyone yearning for the story to be told clearly.

Ravi Jain has done excellent work in other productions, but this time I find his presentation dismally inept or sluggish, burdened by his urge to stylize things to the loss of clarity, cohesion, and competent speech. It is clear that the director has his mind on young audiences with small attention spans and limited exposure to the classics. How else to account for the almost manga-like mime from Miriam Fernandes as the Player King or the egregious vaudeville comedy by the same actress as the Gravedigger who resorts to a bit of opera buffa (literally singing into a bucket). This is the first Gravedigger I have ever seen who seems to want to sing and dance his way into our hearts.

Jain accompanies Hamlet’s first soliloquy with a prancing Claudius and then a dance with his queen on the perimeter of the platform. Elsewhere, one scene leaks into another, with the director forgetting all about coherence. Jain stages the climactic duel without suggesting even the slightest shred of physical danger. His cast sits on the floor, with their backs to the audience, miming some of the action, with no spoken text that I can recall. The silence is far from dramatic. Where the production is dominated by a virtually unconscionable reduction of text (it’s all shreds and patches), the final scene is marked and marred by a deficiency of physical action. This may well be the only case of the Hamlet-Laertes duel represented by a solitary mummer.

Which may well be part of the director’s strategy to divert from the generally lacklustre speech of his cast. For one thing, Jain allows sound designer Thomas Ryder Paine free rein with a musical score that is so persistent as to be almost aggressively intrusive and annoying.  But even without this accompaniment, the spoken soundtrack would be disappointing. Hannah Miller plays four roles, mostly crudely, apart from her Guildenstern. Though Barbara Gordon has her moments as Polonius, there are layers missing from this performance. Karen Robinson’s Gertrude does capture some of the verse’s sophistication, though she fails to do anything especially notable with the poetic account of Ophelia’s death. Rick Roberts’s Claudius is generally vulgar in speech and acting. Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes (with a nose-ring) is another similar offender. Jeff Ho shows some sensitivity as Ophelia, though he mars his performance by a tendency to be lachrymose and overly vehement when a more restrained mode of acting would have served him better. The problem is that too many younger actors and contemporary directors lack adequate training in verse, and this shows lamentably in this production.

Christine Horne, defying gender, errs on the side of hysteria when she isn’t simply flat and unprofitable with Hamlet’s words. Horne even gets to speak the Ghost’s lines, which she does with a different pitch but with no more finesse than her prince. This is a Hamlet who is unhinged from the start, her normally thin voice often rising to an unearthly screech in the most unexpected places. The direction doesn’t help. Jain ends the Mousetrap sequence with only half of Hamlet’s cry: “The play’s the thing…” Where a spoken climax may be expected, there is none, and where less sound would be a mark of artistic restraint, there is too often loud weeping or yelling that seems to come from no recognizable psychological place.

This point brings me to what, perhaps, may be the radical reason for artistic failure in this production. Shakespeare makes it eminently clear that “something’s rotten in the state of Denmark,” and that the kingdom is rife with various types of espionage. Consequently, the political element is supposed to be very important in the telling of a story that is really about discovering who you are in a world tainted by vice and confusion. Jain’s production, however, allows the actors to drift about in a context that lacks specificity. Shakespeare’s characters don’t function well if you try (in Nicholas Hytner’s words) to “abstract them back to their essentials.”

THE MESSAGE

By Jason Sherman
Directed by Richard Rose
A Tarragon Theatre Production. Opened November 14, 2018

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and R.H. Thomson in The Message (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Marshall McLuhan was the rage in the 60s¸ when undergraduates latched on to some of his catchiest utterances about media theory, such as “the medium is the message,” “schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy,” “advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century,” and “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.” McLuhan had a wide repertoire of slogans and purr words, such as “the global village,” “the Gutenberg Galaxy,” “the mechanical bride,” and “surfing” as he sought to divide media into “hot” and “cool” categories—much to the consternation and displeasure of other intellectuals with less racy zest but heavier gravitas. He was far more popular among youth than the Don of Canadian Literary Criticism, Northrop Frye, a colleague at the University of Toronto and with whom he had a well-publicized feud. McLuhan’s brilliant career was interrupted abruptly when he suffered a massive stroke that rendered him speechless, though he was known to have suffered periodic min-strokes or petit mal seizures prior to this calamity. A brain tumour the size of a golf ball was removed in what was then the longest neurological surgery in history. McLuhan’s legend grew post-operatively: when he awoke an hour after surgery and was asked how he felt, it was reported that he remarked this depended on what was meant by “feeling.” But this bravado aside, he had, in fact, lost loads of memory but acquired a larger hypersensitivity to noise.

I recapitulate all this simply to rehearse what Jason Sherman’s play also rehearses in its own peculiar way, as well as to suggest how the cart can lead the horse on stage—which is what happens in Sherman’s long one-act drama that shows the heavy burden of its background research. Sherman is one of our best-known and most celebrated playwrights. I have admired his trilogy relating to Judaism, and he often displays a scorching wit in a dual sense of satire and intellectual mettle. However, his gifts don’t save The Message, a play that has had a sad history. Meant to open the Tarragon season in 2003, it was met with strenuous objection by the McLuhan estate and was, therefore, shelved. But 2018 is a different era and nobody thinks any longer of McLuhan (or Northrop Frye, for that matter) in quite the same reverential tones as in the 60s and 70s. But this triumph over delay is a Pyrrhic victory because the play tells us practically nothing new about McLuhan. It is also obsessively repetitive and somewhat crude in its strategies, wavering between expressionism and the broadest, most vulgar vaudevillian comedy, indulging in cardboard representations of women (McLuhan’s wife; his secretary at the Centre for Culture and Technology), and running through some of his ideas on media theory like a de rigueur homage.

The play’s structure is self-defeating because it is necessarily fragmented, beginning in literal darkness (a cliché) with the great man’s massive stroke, and moving via flashbacks through a repertoire of puns, wordplay, and wicked wit well beloved by McLuhan fans. R.H. Thomson plays McLuhan as vividly as he can (“Oh, boy!”), though it is mainly vocal virtuosity for he is rooted or situated in a bed or chair for most of the show. The best epigram in the play is, of course, McLuhan’s “It’s just aphasia I’m going through” that is scribbled on a pad, and the best monologue is a post-surgical rambling monologue that resembles something out of Samuel Beckett and is rendered wonderfully by the actor. (The weird scene with student-disciples dressed as sheep is probably another pun: scholar-sheep, anyone?) Patrick McManus plays an ad man, an NBC executive who tries to get McLuhan to boil down his theories for pop appeal, as well as an empathetic Irish priest (McLuhan was Catholic and loved James Joyce’s writing) with all the clichés of those breeds intact, while Peter Hutt first (as decreed by script and director) overplays the role of Feigen, the American business man who helped advance McLuhan’s career, before showing us the real human being later in the play. I confess that in his trope from bum-waggling, crudely roaring clown to serious confidant, Hutt gave me the most pleasure, apart from Thomson. The two actresses in the ensemble, however, afforded almost none. Sarah Orenstein (usually good) is obviously at the mercy of the script as McLuhan’s Texan-born wife, and there is nothing especially interesting in her acting. Nor is there much of real interest or value in Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s pallid university secretary (her lacklustre voice is off-putting), though her cigarette and cigar lady in a topless restaurant offers something to a male gaze, though not much else to anyone’s mind.

Camellia Koo’s set and Charlotte Dean’s costumes don’t add much to anything, though Rebecca Picherak’s lighting does. At one point, McLuhan suggests that the country we belong to is just an hallucination—an idea that appeals to me—though it could also be said that Sherman’s play is a sort of hallucination itself. And a not very engaging one at that because it looks and sounds trite and manages to divorce feeling from idea while attempting to be clever.

MACBETH

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris Abraham
At Bard on the Beach, Vancouver. June 17-September 3, 2018

Moya O’Connell (Lady Macbeth) and Ben Carlson (Macbeth)  (photo: Tim Matheson)

“A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come.” Indeed, though there is too much drumming in Owen Belton’s strong soundscape, though I liked the use of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy evocative of Scottish Highlands, and the melancholy melody for Lady Macbeth. Gerald King’s lighting design finds it hard to cope with the sunlight pouring in from outdoors in the first half, though by sunset, the colour and mood change naturally. Of course, from the first eerie scream of Lady Macbeth in tandem with that of the Second Witch in the Prologue, it is clear that Chris Abraham’s perspective of this play is jolting. In a set (by Pam Johnson) that pays homage to the open-air Globe in London with pillars (morphing into upper tree branches), mezzanine, and wooden floor with a trap, all grey and white to evoke a cold, stark world that can be menacing and otherworldly, the production is boldly aggressive. The ensemble enters (costumed by Christine Reimer chiefly in in linens, wools, and velvets), and they draw close in hunched kneeling, knocking on the wooden floor as if to summon something as yet unexpressed or made sensible, in addition to stirring a narrative into motion. The knocking grows louder, and erupts into a battle, the noise of which peaks with the simultaneous screams of Lady Macbeth and the Second Witch. The lady’s is more significant: her scream issues from pain and frustration at the loss of her child (marked by an empty cradle that is abruptly removed by soldiers). Her maternal side gone, she must grow a new identity or, at least, the shape of one, with which to affect her dearest partner of greatness’s manhood and existential purpose. This is a world where the three witches (in corseted bodices and boots) are shabby, rough, and ready for war against the natural order. They could be camp-followers or vagrants, and their vocal attack is robust, though far too shrill and unsubtle, grotesque rather than supernaturally eerie. However, director Abraham doesn’t seem to mind this deficiency, electing, instead, to focus on the psychology of the two lead characters, played by Moya O’Connell and Ben Carlson, two superbly gifted and charismatic performers who give the production its greatest Shakespearean lift.

This is certainly a valid way of tackling this tragedy about two characters who lose their humanity in the cause of overweening ambition. The production never trivializes the private, domestic life of Macbeth and his lady. When they embrace and kiss after his return from heroic war victory, the sexual current is palpable. And she is all tactility, tracing his facial outline with her fingers, making him feel her support to correct his infirm purpose. Two heavy doors open and close on what could be other castle rooms and locations—places where malign plots can be laid. From this seed, an entire forest of human folly and self-destruction grows, haunted by horrors from the natural and supernatural realms. The problem, however, is that the title character (husband, soldier-hero, disillusioned poet) shrinks rather than grows in his humanity, ending up cornered, desperate, and fated to destruction. Ben Carlson, shaggily bearded, robust in voice and manner (while being clear in his speech and action), is a marvel of mounting excitement, never merely booming for sound and fury, but a man who begins to take himself and the witches’ prophecy too seriously until his lack of remorse, married to his repeated crimes, shrivels his humanity. Sometimes one feels in the soliloquies that the actor wishes Macbeth could be as philosophic as Hamlet, but Carlson’s Macbeth, while questing at times for intellectual security, is seized by fits of bewilderment and guilt. Wracked with convulsions of nauseous self-doubt, he is stunned and stunning in the dagger vision scene, knocking on the floor as if to be emphatic on “There’s no such thing.” And when apprised of his wife’s death, he takes one of the longest pauses imaginable before the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, clearly demonstrating a man who has been diminished and possibly lost to himself. The actor is not always well supported by the cast and on one occasion by his director. The banquet scene is not as strong as it should be (with a wavering blue light on Banquo’s ghost that often misses the actor), and Abraham’s use of kettle drums often intrudes on important dialogue. Macbeth’s revisit to the weird sisters, when he sees more ghosts of his victims, is pallid and lax. But these deficiencies wane whenever Moya O’Connell shares the stage with Carlson.

Moya O’Connell as Lady Macbeth (photo: Tim Matheson)

This pairing is the best I have seen on stage for this play, far more vivid, more powerful, sexier, more profound in the psychological dimension than any of the Stratford Festival pairings to date. Beautiful, sensuous, and sensual, Moya O’Connell makes a great partner for Carlson, etching the deep physical connection she feels for a man who cannot give her more children even as he plans to kill the children of his most dangerous rivals. The thunder in her performance comes from her dramatic intensity rather than vocal volume and mass, and the actress clearly exposes the “spine” of Lady Macbeth, whom she portrays as a woman who keenly wishes to support and spur her husband but who is ultimately devastated by discovering how far apart they really are morally and metaphysically. Her opening scene is thrilling as she reads her husband’s letter and then invokes the dark powers to unsex her. Femininity shoved aside for a while, she concentrates on serving him. Her womb empty, she fills herself with hungry ambition but not merely for herself, but when her husband wades deeper and deeper into gore and unimaginable horror, she shrinks back in guilt and revulsion, vividly representing these passions in her sleepwalking scene that is calm and spastic in turns.

It is a pity that not many of the cast make worthy supporting players. For my taste, only Andrew Wheeler’s Macduff and Scott Bellis’s Duncan stand out, though there are moments of serviceable competence by Jeff Gladstone as Malcolm, Nadeem Phillip as Donalbain, Craig Erickson as Banquo, Harveen Sandhu as Witch 3 and blood-lipped Kate Besworth as Witch 2. Kayvon Khoshkam has flashes of equivocal wit as the drunken Porter who rises from the trap (hell?), but everyone should observe and learn from O’Connell and Carlson who make of their roles compasses into hearts of darkness, from the first knocking in the prologue to the knocking within Macbeth’s heart that unfixes reason, to the knocking at the gate, and the ultimate knocking to seal (echoing De Quincey) how time is annihilated while new pulses of life are beginning to beat again with the coronation of a new king.