I’ve decided to go through my many Facebook posts about theatre from last year and collect all my instant reactions to shows as I saw them — fragmentary, brusque, overly enthusiastic or unsympathetic as they may be. Sometimes these posts spawned spirited discussions, and I’ll try to include whatever else I said as the threads developed (but I’m not including other people’s comments). Enjoy. Or whatever.
Lungs (Duncan Macmillan, dir. Weyni Mengesha), Tarragon Theatre, Toronto. 27 March 2014
So, Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs at the Tarragon. I’m very ambivalent about this show. The script’s very clever, sure. And I have huge respect for the actors — technically two very accomplished performances. As far as pacing goes, it’s a splendidly directed production. There’s an ebb and flow to the dialogue, a range from piano to crescendo, that’s really pretty satisfying. And it’s not an embodied radio play either, much as it could have been. I laughed, and I got a little bit sad. I was entertained and I admired the skill on display.
On the other hand, I was also pretty bored. Yes, it’s a well-observed script. I’ve had some of those conversations, I’ve witnessed others, and there were very few false notes. Lovely. But did I discover anything new about people like that (people really quite a lot like me and my friends)? Nope. Did I feel challenged, or threatened, or even vaguely uncomfortable? Nope. Was I genuinely surprised by anything, narratively, dramaturgically, thematically? Not really. It’s a play that’s very close to reality, but I’m not sure it does much beyond depicting a slightly heightened version of reality (with the nifty twist of doing that just through dialogue, nothing else). And ultimately, I don’t really go to the theatre to see and hear things I already know pretty well. I find that, sadly, profoundly dull (and I continue to believe that film is MUCH better at depicting the mundane than the stage).
It was also very odd seeing this play, about a couple in their late 20s, early 30s, going through the kinds of crises and pseudo-crises that people in the late 20s, early 30s (middle class, educated, mostly white, Anglo people, that is) are going through in the 2010s, at the Tarragon, where I’m pretty sure I was among the youngest people in the crowd. That’s not ageist: I’m glad our seniors are supporting our theatres (I really am). But it seems a bit ridiculous to stage a play about youngish people, and about a youngish perspective on the world, for an audience whose average age I’d charitably peg at around 50 — an audience affluent enough to pony up $48 for 75 minutes of theatre. Is that really a meaningful exercise?
An immediate afterthought:
Oh, I should say that this was MY reaction — I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with this sort of show, I just find it hard to get especially excited about it. I’m glad it’s doing well, and I was genuinely impressed with the performances.
When challenged about my problems with the audience:
I’ll try and be more precise in describing what bothered me about the audience: it’s not that there were too many older people, and that Lungs is a play about 30-somethings. Obviously plays about one generation (and I would insist that this is a play about my generation and the generations immediately after mine — even if it takes the action into the future in the end) can be and should be seen, experienced, critiqued, and thought about by audience members from different generations, older and younger. If they couldn’t be, they’d be pointless exercises in solipsism. What bothered me was that there were practically none of the people represented on stage present in the audience. Perhaps last night was atypical in that regards, but I suspect not. Ticket prices alone make it unlikely that the Ms and Ws of our world, PhD students and struggling musicians, can frequently come to see shows about themselves….
And while I don’t disagree about the formal qualities of the script, or the technical fluency and skill of the actors (not at all, in fact), I do think that thematically, Lungs is a play that represents a set of preoccupations, anxieties, and hangups that collectively pretty much define Western middle-class, highly educated, urban people born in the late 70s and 1980s. Perhaps it’s a more interesting play if you’re not one of those people?
Trying to puzzle out why I found the play so much less compelling than some of my friends:
Perhaps it’s that I’ve had those very same conversations often enough, and have pretty much come to settled conclusions on them, that I don’t find them especially terrifying anymore — not so much the money stuff as the “is it responsible to put children into this world” stuff. Or perhaps I’m too much of a cynic. Likewise for the “We are good people, right?” stuff — so very familiar. It’s not that I didn’t feel implicated; I suppose I expected to be implicated, but didn’t feel implicated in a way that unsettled me at all.
My problems with the play & the production (more the play than the production, I guess) are really quite, quite subjective: it’s simply not the kind of thing I can get especially excited about.
Further on the question of access:
The money thing, though: I do worry about that, and not just subjectively. How exactly and for how much longer can we justify asking people to pay nearly 50 bucks per person to watch two actors on an empty set perform for 75 minutes? No matter how exciting the performances might be, no matter how brilliant the play, that seems like a very problematic scenario to me.
And in response to a comment from Kelly Nestruck:
I actually agree that direction and acting deserved all your stars, Kelly. I remain conflicted.
Belleville (Amy Herzog, dir. Jason Byrne) Canadian Stage (Berkeley Theatre), Toronto. 16 April 2014
Very weird setting: I somehow stumbled into a gala evening and found myself surrounded by a lot of corporate types in very corporate outfits. Not the usual theatre crowd. Way too many dollar signs in the air, way too little hunger.
The play, reviewed very favourably by Kelly Nestruck, was, er, I don’t know — effective, I suppose? I got very fidgety in the first half, increasingly bored out of my skull, but was drawn in in the second half, as secrets started to unravel. The ending was totally botched, but whatever. On the one hand, I did wonder why this had to be a play and couldn’t have been a film; on the other hand, I sort of admired the way it managed to create tension in a theatre, and while that didn’t make this a particularly theatrically rich piece, it used the medium, well, effectively. So fine.
I wish we’d spend less time and money on trying to make a stage and stage lights look like real life. But that’s me, I guess.
I didn’t notice much direction. But as Jason Byrne is known for not blocking his scenes, I guess he should be credited with giving his actors the freedom to use the space, which I rather enjoyed. It’s a predictable sort of realism, but there’s pleasure in that: seeing someone come home and settle into her at-home demeanour, watching someone mop up a mess in real time, witnessing a half-asleep drunk person stumbling through her no-longer familiar flat — that’s all good. In general, a lot of interesting and intense stuff seemed to happen in the silences. But, and I don’t say this often, I was bothered more often than not by both main actors’ vocal performances. So much over-enunciating! (I’ve never seen Allan Hawco on stage before, and don’t know if that’s his screen-actor self overcompensating; but I’m normally a great admirer of Christine Horne’s work, and was surprised to hear her sound like that.) It felt to me almost like actors compensating for an unaccustomed degree of physical freedom by constraining their voices. It took me a good half hour to get over that annoyance, and then I just did my best to ignore the words and enjoy the physical interactions.
All in all, Belleville‘s fine. It’s 90 minutes of intense-enough, watchable-enough theatre. But it’s also pretty middling in its ambitions and formally dull. At least my ticket was less than half what my last Tarragon show cost.
Good grief, just read Ouzounian’s review. The encomium to Hawco’s acting is hilariously cloying. But I wonder if he is to blame for the vocal thing: he goes on about how inaudible the actors are — I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re now over-enunciating in response to that…
Hercules (Handel, dir. Peter Sellars) Canadian Opera Company, Toronto. 19 April 2014
Hercules at the COC would have been much better without the American flag at the end, but it was still pretty spectacular. Amazing lighting design — the shadow work in the second half was sheer magic. Some very impressive performances, especially the women; I particularly enjoyed how much Sellars was willing to sacrifice beauty for expression of emotion. Perhaps the best COC production I’ve seen this season (and immeasurably better than Sellars’ last effort, the dreary, kitschy Tristan and Isolde).
Dream Play (Strindberg, dir. Daniel Brooks) Soulpepper, Toronto (non-public workshop production). 31 May 2014
So yesterday I saw one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in Toronto, but it was a workshop and I think I’m not allowed to talk about it.
And I expect that I still can’t talk about it now — but I sure hope Soulpepper find a place for this show in their season.
Kontakthof (Pina Bausch) Luminato Festival (Bluma), Toronto. 14 June 2014
It’s only intermission, but boy is Kontakthof enchanting. Perhaps the first time I’ve seen the Bluma resemble a real theatre.
To clarify: there’s actually space on stage. It’s tall and wide and deep — who knew there was so much depth? And they’re using all of that width and all of that depth — and then, crucially, they open that depth out into the auditorium and allow us in. THAT is how you use a stage.
Toronto theatre friends: how many of you managed to see Kontakthof? I fear too few, given the absurd ticket prices.
This show, now almost 40 years old, is a perfect example of many of the things I always bang on about with German theatre: a vibrant, immediate connection between performer and audience; a magnificent use of space; an approach to staging that turns the proscenium into a space portal; a real dedication to form; total commitment to staging decisions (such as showing an entire old-school nature documentary about ducklings, with the whole cast sitting in the dark, watching, with their backs to us. Hilarious).
I wish all of you could have seen this. It’s a wonderful, wonderful piece of theatre.
Juno and the Paycock (Sean O’Casey, dir. Jackie Maxwell) Shaw Festival (Royal George Theatre), Niagara-on-the-Lake. 18 July 2014
Juno and the Paycock at Shaw (in previews): bunch of good performances, a couple of very effective moments, and accents that mostly weren’t too dodgy (with a few very notable exceptions in small parts). Parts of Act 2 were wonderfully painful to watch, and there was a good deal of foreboding the jollier the action got.
But it’s at least half an hour too long (cut the damn thing!), the set’s magnificently fussy, and the performers seem limited to an acting space about 1-1.5 metres deep. The Royal George stage, as cute as it is, actually has some depth — why not use it for, you know, acting (rather than just exits and entrances)? Couple of moments, too, where some of the actors seem to check out completely — perhaps that was the matinee, perhaps that’s because it’s previews, but it’s a directorial issue in any case. Also, is it maybe, just possibly an option not to do O’Casey in a way that makes him sound and feel like a folk author? Does the Oirishness really have to be lathered on quite so thickly?
Karen Fricker, who was embedded as an observer with the show and wrote about it in a series of blog posts asked some really good questions about authenticity, and accessibility, and repertory. To which I:
I’ll read the whole series of embedded posts tomorrow — I’d thought you were working on Arms and the Man for some reason, or I would have read them before I saw the show! Authenticity is such a loaded issue, and so complicated in this case, and I’m too tired now to think… but the cutting questions seems a bit more straightforward to me. I don’t mean intervene radically or reshape the play — but there seems to be quite a bit of flab, quite a lot of lines where characters say things that are obvious already in their actions or reactions. So I guess what I mean is trimming, helping the play along by giving it a leaner verbal form. The gentlest kind of dramaturgical intervention…
Karen then asked if I’d feel as comfortable about cuts if this weren’t O’Casey but Shakespeare.
The Shakespeare question is an easy one: comfortable? I keep clamouring for them whenever I see a Stratford production. Shakespeare needs severe cutting (and got it, until the confounded 20th century). I’m dying to FINALLY see a Hamlet that chucks out the trite (if nicely phrased) and dramaturgically largely superfluous To Be or Not to Be bit. I really have zero respect for “the text” in the theatre: to me, a show is all about the performance — and if whatever the performance is after requires changes to the text, planned or improvised, they have to be made.
Oh, and this delightful thing happened during the show:
A new low: sitting in the third row during the Shaw Festival’s Juno and the Paycock. Halfway through the second act, the handbag of the middle-aged lady next to me starts to buzz. She reaches for it — to turn off her phone, I think. Oh no. She gets it out and starts texting. Then she puts it away again. Then she texts again. And again. Finally, when she won’t even stop while ancient Mrs Tancred is delivering her angry, mournful speech RIGHT IN FRONT OF US, I hiss at her to put the bloody thing away. She does.
Could it have been an emergency? Sure. In an emergency, you leave the theatre. You don’t stay sitting there holding a well-lit smartphone in the actors’ faces. Seriously: what the fuck?
The Sea (Edward Bond, dir. Eda Holmes) Shaw Festival (Court House Theatre), Niagara-on-the-Lake. 18 July 2014
Edward Bond’s The Sea at Shaw is great — a very nicely conceived production, elegant in its relative simplicity, and some real powerhouse performances. Way too tired now to say anything of substance, but I hope ticket sales for this pick up: it’s a really good show, extremely funny and pretty devastating at the same time, in some ways like a non-reactionary, theatrical Downton Abbey. Sort of.
The Charity that Began at Home (St John Hankin, dir. Christopher Newton) Shaw Festival (Court House Theatre), Niagara-on-the-Lake. 19 July 2014
The Charity that Began at Home, my third (and for now last) Shaw Festival play: very smooth, professional, stylish production — a classic Shaw Festival show, I think. Looked great, moved like clockwork. Very funny, too. One pretty great moment when Jim Mezon as the monstrously boring General Bonsor had the audience not just in stitches, but in groans — a rather extraordinarily interactive exchange through the usually impermeable fourth wall, where he seemed to be whipping the audience into a state of near-tumult and then battled with those pained laughs and groans to keep on pushing his insanely boring narrative along.
That said — it’s a fine play, but a little ho-hum, and in its politics not exactly of-the-moment. I have a degree of a admiration for this well-crafted kind of theatre, but it’s really just live costume drama at a much higher price than a Netflix subscription. I don’t think I’d call it art — it’s craft. Which is fine, but also no more than fine.
For what it’s worth, though, I really, really disagree with Kelly Nestruck’s reading of the play and the show: I didn’t think there was ANY indication that Soames, the Butler, had raped Anson, the maid. I did think it was in poor taste (and not the most compelling choice dramaturgically) to play her sobs for laughs, but that’s about it — the show made us act as callously as the other characters on stage in that moment. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, and I certainly don’t think it’s a moral trespass. (To think that the degree of distress exhibited by the maid is a sign of sexual violation strikes me as quite badly anachronistic: everything others say about how unwell Anson looks can be found 1-1 in Juno and the Paycock as well, and her reaction is precisely the reaction one might expect of a socially disadvantaged figure who finds herself pregnant out of wedlock in an Edwardian play. Thinking that anything more sinister is necessary as an explanation for her distress seems VERY 2014 to me. And as the show is obviously deeply historicist in its ethos and look, I don’t think it’s appropriate to hold it to 21st-entury standards in this regard. It doesn’t have to be psychologically plausible in contemporary terms.)
Kelly responded on Facebook, and I’ll reproduce his response here (it was a public thread):
“It’s fascinating the different responses I’ve heard now from that part of the play/production – from your reaction, to the Guelph professor who felt it was perfectly clear the housemaid had been sexually assaulted. (I’d love to go back and see if it has changed at all.) Newton’s response, by the way, was this: ‘The original encounter could have been joyous or, at the other extreme, unwanted and brutal. As rehearsals progressed we agreed that it started light heartedly but somehow got out of control.’ To me that phrase ‘somehow got out of control’ is an indication of the lack of sensitivity and disconcerting nebulousness I detected in the direction of this scene.”
And I responded thus:
I’ll give you lack of sensitivity — I didn’t like that Anson sobbed so loudly and theatrically that the distress itself became funny. (Unless the intention was to make us feel bad for laughing at her, but I don’t think that really worked either.) If this weren’t such a rigorously Manners of the Mandate production, I’d say it’s perfectly fine to judge it by modern standards, in which case the maid’s reaction really only makes sense if violence was involved. But within its historical frame, that’s just incongruous, and totally unnecessary. So I’d need some evidence that the play wants us to think of Soames as a rapist rather than a scoundrel — and I don’t see that anywhere (the footman who wants to quit objects to his foul language, and the “violence” that’s mentioned, again in historical context, does not need to be physical — a foul-mouthed, ill-tempered person would have been called “violent” even if s/he never touched anyone). It’s also really quite oblivious to think (as at least some of the commenters on your review seem to believe) that Edwardian society would have ignored the rape of a maid by a butler. A rape by a master — sure, I can believe that. But the violation of a servant by another servant? Certainly not. The play is so clearly concerned with moral failure, and only at the margins with criminal behaviour — and where crime is the issue, it’s petty crime. It would be very odd to have a major felony casually thrown into the mix. On a factual note, I’ll also say that the crying maid absolutely did not get the biggest laughs of the night. The scene of silent discomfort afterwards did get big laughs, but those weren’t in any obvious way at the victim’s expense. And easily the loudest laughs were all at General Bonsor’s expense. Perhaps the audience at opening was very different.
“Well, I see a fair bit of textual evidence that points in that direction – I outlined it in the review, from the reference to Soames as ‘violent’ to the indication that the maid has been depressed in recent months. Even Jackie Maxwell would give me that it was ‘ambiguous’ what happened with Anson and Soames in the script… And Newton seems to think there was a range of possibilities. My main problem was that it is ambiguous in performance – as evidenced by the varying readings from different audience members (I’m excluding myself here; I know at least two women at the opening who saw it as sexual assault).
And ultimately, I just thought it was telling how the play and certainly the production handled Anson’s tears over what is a devastating event (no matter what the circumstances of the baby’s conception) versus the tears of whatever-her-name-is, the niece, at the end over her broken engagement with that guy who wasn’t really suited for her. It’s just not a play seriously concerned with effects of this charity policy on the servants; and the production made us feel more for the boors who had their feelings hurt than this lower-class woman whose life is basically destroyed.”
PS. As for where the audience laughed, we were at different performances, so I’m not sure why you term that note ‘factual’.”
Rapidly conceding that last point…
Fair enough. Different nights, different audiences.
… I then continued:
I don’t really agree that the text suggests rape — not at all, in fact, entirely independently of what Maxwell & Newton think or say they thought. That just strikes me as a modern imposition. And I disagree that the play distinguishes sharply between classes in its satire: I don’t think we’re encouraged to feel much more sympathy for Miss Triggs or Mrs Horrocks than for Anson, we’re certainly not encouraged to feel any sympathy for Soames, and I’d even say there’s little effort to make us feel sorry for the poor old boring General. Not sure Mr Firket is more than a caricature either. The only non-family member who’s treated with any kind of complexity is Verreker. And Soames is fired — so if anything, you could say he’s the only scoundrel — the only beneficiary of charity — who is punished for his behaviour.
We’ll just have to agree to disagree on the ambiguity question: it would never have occurred to me that sexual violence was the reason for Anson’s tears, and I will continue to think that this is a contemporary rather than an Edwardian conclusion. That other 2014 audience members drew the same conclusion is hardly evidence that the play makes such a suggestion.
Do I like the politics of the play? Not really. But nor do I like the politics of most of Shakespeare’s plays. Do I think it would be a good idea to stage these texts in a way that complicated their politics? Absolutely. But that’s obviously not what this production was doing: it presented a rigorously historicist reading, a performance that grounded the play in its Edwardian moment of origin without much commentary of any kind.
Lastly, I do think it’s a problem that in your review you present the rape as a given, rather than as one possibility. That makes it sound as if the production deliberately downplayed a serious crime, even made fun of it. Not that that sort of thing doesn’t happen in plenty of plays and in many productions, especially of early modern plays. But I really don’t think it happens in Charity — and I think it’s really quite problematic that you write as if events that are at most ambiguously alluded to in the text clearly take place.
Antigonick (Anne Carson / Sophocles, dir. Cole Lewis) Theatre Centre / Summerworks, Toronto. 16 August 2014
Very pleased to see a show that made such an effort to combine an intriguing text with a total commitment to a genuinely theatrical representational vocabulary. Lots to love, and lots I did love: very nice approach to the chorus, a delightful willingness to switch back and forth between metatheatrical and straight registers, one of the most thrilling uses of a set I’ve seen in Toronto in, er, forever, and a remarkably flexible, character-driven use of the text. Still did feel like a workshop production — nothing ran quite as smoothly as it could have, the seams were sort of showing too often and too much, and I’m not sure everyone was quite on the same page. Also not sure how I felt about Carson’s text: Antigone in particular seemed oddly unfocused, with the central conflict between her and Creon never quite emerging with the clarity it needs. And yet: just thrilling to see a proper cast on a Toronto stage for once, doing a proper play, taking proper risks, playing proper theatre, doing stuff that only makes sense on a stage. Now give them eight weeks of rehearsal and Bob’s your uncle.
Helen Lawrence (Chris Haddock and Stan Douglas) Canadian Stage (Bluma), Toronto. 2 Nov 2014
Helen Lawrence at CanStage: technically pretty impressive and a few nice images, but I can’t remember feeling this disconnected from actors in a theatre before, not even in Katie Mitchell’s video work. And not much of a play either. Solid (if unchallenging) performances, but really a rather empty-feeling exercise.
There was a pretty stage picture at the end. And when the scrim went up for the curtain call, the actors suddenly seemed like real people.
And that was all I could think of. Perhaps the most deeply disappointing theatre evening of the year for me.
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- The Changeling (Middleton & Rowley; dir. Jackie Maxwell) Stratford, July 2017
- How to Kill a Great Theatre: The Tragedy of the Volksbühne
- Three Sisters (Chekhov/Stone; dir. Simon Stone) Theater Basel/Theatertreffen, May 2017
- British Theatre under the Influence (of much more than The Roman Tragedies)
- Hamlet (Shakespeare; dir. Robert Icke) Almeida, London; Mar. 2017
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