I am happy. Tonight, I saw a genuine piece of theatre. A show that did the sorts of things that I go to the theatre for. The things theatre can do and film can’t. That show was Soulpepper’s production of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Royal Comedians, directed by László Marton.

Predictably, I suppose, my delight was not shared by the majority of Toronto critics, whose responses ranged from the vicious (the always reliably vexing Richard Ouzounian with a vintage piece of incoherent tripe) to the ambivalent (Robert Cushman) and more ambivalent (Kelly Nestruck).

The play and its contexts are aptly summarized in the latter two reviews, so I won’t bother here. I share Nestruck’s sense that Royal Comedians isn’t really about Molière; and while Bulgakov’s text was obviously inspired by his own struggles as a writer under Stalin, this production doesn’t recreate that particular context either. Instead, the seventeenth-century plot and certain visual elements of Soviet Russia are played off against each other in a far less specific reflection on the relationship between theatre and power, between artist and ruler. This show isn’t “about” Molière and Louis XIV, nor is about Bulgakov and Stalin — it’s about art and politics, or perhaps even more broadly, about the pleasure of fiction and the pressure of the real. As a consequence, we can’t just sit and watch the past, Ancien Régime or Stalinism; we are, in a fairly oblique way, implicated in the action. When the security police’s searchlights scan the stage, they scan the auditorium, too; we are blinded by their glare as much as the characters are. When the king applauds the opening performance, his clapping and his voice are heard from the balcony, not from the stage. Molière and company perform their scenes for us, at us, as much as for an unseen imaginary audience. The production is over and over again challenging us to consider where we are vis-a-vis the play — are we in it or outside it?

This sense of dislocation is evident everywhere: the costumes don’t situate the characters variously in the 17th century and/or the 1930s, but precisely nowhere and everywhere in history. The set, with its wonderful forced — and false — perspectives and marvellous flexibility (now it’s the stage of the Palais Royal, now its dressing room; now it’s Louis’s reception chamber, now it’s the interior of a church, with rows and rows of staggered confessionals; now it’s the crypt of a church, now it’s Molière’s flat) is constantly shifting, too, its five or six elements always changing physical location and significance. Its play on perspective is also designed to enhance the sense of dislocation further, suggesting depth where the blocking suggests flatness, and, in the scene in Louis’s reception chamber, juxtaposing the tiny doors upstage with Daniel Williston’s jester’s large frame, making him suddenly appear gigantic and throwing the very idea of illusionism into high (comic) relief. What’s real and what’s pretence, what’s actual and what a mere effect (if that’s even the right set of terms) is constantly in flux, constantly established and challenged again throughout the show. The scenes from Molière’s play interpolated into Bulgakov’s text are part and parcel of this strategy: most critics have remarked on just how accomplished those scenes-within-the-play are — and they are that — but their very polish creates an odd (and I think deliberate) sense that these ostentatiously theatrical, unreal, moments are more finished, more perfect, more convincing even than the apparently real scenes that surround them.

I can’t say I’m a great admirer of Bulgakov’s play, and the translation used for this production certainly sounded clunky at times. But so what? What Marton does with the text, how he stages it, how he frames its characters and situations, is where the real pleasures of this show lie. Play is the central theme — everything is provisional, every role is only tried on for the moment, every pose struck primarily for effect, every surface merely a cover. Everyone’s a liar, or at least an actor, in the Royal Comedians (the king himself is a grim joker). Which is why it’s so particularly irritating to hear, from Ouzounian, that Diego Matamoros, in his portrayal of Molière is “like a ship without a rudder here, giving us an assortment of attitudes in search of a central core.” Why should he need a central core? There may be characters who have such a thing; there may be plays that need to be inhabited by such characters. This is not one of them. The very point of this production, surely, is that people, and places, and societies, and history, and the world don’t have “central cores” — they just have appearances. Attitudes is all we’ve got.

It’s not a perfect production, of course. It’s not always fast enough. Some moments lack precision. Not all the performances maintain the level of corelessness so essential to the show, and they stick out as a consequence in their relative sentimentality (this isn’t true, however, of William Webster’s loyal candlesnuffer, the non-actor in Molière’s company, who seems to represent something like the last authentic person standing in the play, powerless and ineffective though he may be). My general impression was that Marton’s approach would have yielded a more satisfying result with two or three weeks more rehearsal time, European-style — as it stands, choices can feel a little arbitrary, a little haphazard, not as tightly choreographed and fully thought-through as they might be. Some lighting cues seem less than compelling. Some of the actors don’t always find their light. And so on. But I’d rather have an imperfect show that tries things out, that plays with conventions and situations, than one that delivers something highly polished and entirely dull, so finished that there is nothing left to say, let alone think.

The set, once again, illustrates my point perfectly. It’s not pretty. It’s a bit ramshackle (Nestruck calls it “cheap-looking”). But so what? It’s a theatrical artefact: an assembly of elements that play various parts — play them well enough, but never so well that we are lulled into a comfortable illusion of presence. There is plenty of pleasure here, but it’s not the pleasure of seeing a fake throne room, or a fake dressing room, or a fake church interior — it’s the pleasure of watching simple, slightly run-down structures perform those spaces. The excitement is not of the “look how real we can make this appear!” variety, but of the “look how little it takes to make you accept this as real” kind. It’s make-belief, but not fakery. And in that, it loudly proclaims a vision of theatre that’s also at the heart of the scene from The Imaginary Invalid that almost ends the play: that theatre is most true to itself, and most engaging, when it’s not pretending to be real.

In Bulgakov’s play, Molière convinces himself that he is safe from his political enemies as long as he’s on stage — that they can’t kill him there. But when his foe, the Marquis d’Orsini, comes onstage anyway to “run him through,” Molière performs the final act of theatrical defiance and dies before he can be killed. Even on paper, that’s a complicated enough contrast of reality and performance: Molière stages his own death to evade the reality of d’Orsini’s blade. Marton’s production makes the most of the moment, juxtaposing Matamoros’s fantastic portrayal of death, lifeless slumping, drooling, and all, with Stuart Hughes’ over-the-top theatrical villain. The murderer stands for one kind of reality; Molière’s death for another; but both are ostentatiously performed, using entirely different but equally theatrical registers. On stage and off stage, real and pretend, control and powerlessness, tragedy and farce — none of those apparent binaries remain unexamined, intact, or ultimately tenable in this production. It’s brilliant, it’s chaotic, it’s thoughtful, it’s challenging, it’s a lot of fun. It’s everything theatre should be and all too rarely is around here. And of course its run is almost over.

One Response to A Theatrical Treat

  1. Lai Im Lancaster says:

    I saw the play twice. The first time I happen to pass by the Director and told him that the play is magical.

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