Things that don’t happen as often as I would like: seeing shows in Toronto that assure me that theatre remains a vital art form here; seeing shows that only make sense as theatre, and couldn’t be a film or a novel; seeing shows that make me feel, immediately, that I want to see them again, right away, at least once more.
Alan Dilworth’s staging of Eurydice made all those things happen, and then some. It also, unusually, made me want to read the play — in large part because the production did so much not feel like a straightforward Anglo-standard “realization” of a text that I wanted to see how far Dilworth and his cast had alerted Ruhl’s play, how much freedom the text had given them, and how many liberties they took. I didn’t get to see the show again, sadly, and its run is now over; I did read the play, that same night. Having read it, one thing that I’m sure of is this: the remarkable theatrical power of Dilworth’s production is not primarily the effect of an especially empowered directorial or actorly position vis-a-vis the text. In most ways, the Soulpepper show “did” Ruhl’s Eurydice. This is not Castorf-does-Ibsen. But that makes it more remarkable, not less: in its own, rather Canadian way, this show and its makers found a way to a theatrical attitude and tone that had nothing to do with “serving” a pre-existing play, but focused mainly on creating moments on stage, on letting things take place in front of us, on making moments happen.
Moments are, to state the obvious, units of time — and its use of time is what is most impressive about this show. Dilworth makes the most of what Ruhl’s script gives him in this regard: I don’t think I can recall ever seeing a show in Toronto that risked as much in taking its time as this one. Here’s how Ruhl’s stage directions describe what to me was this Eurydice‘s central scene:
The Father creates a room out of string for Eurydice.
He makes four walls and a door out of string.
It takes time to build a room out of string.
Eurydice observes the underworld.
There isn’t much to observe.
She plays hop-scotch without chalk.
In a sense, that is all that happens on the Soulpepper stage too. Except that it takes about ten minutes. Ten minutes. Without words. Ten minutes of watching Oliver Dennis patiently, unhurriedly, attach one piece of string after another to hooks in the floor and to hooks suspended from the grid, slowly, methodically, creating a space. Watching Michelle Monteith play hop-scotch like a little kid — once I had realized that that was what she was doing. Sure: I was also watching “the Father” and “Eurydice.” But I was also seeing two actors using space and time, and making space and time. And it was a fantastic moment of theatre.
It’s so easy to imagine how that scene could have been different. How, in rehearsal, someone might have said “This is too long, this is too boring, people won’t care, people will drift off, nothing’s happening, no-one is saying anything, I’m getting itchy, SPEED IT UP.” How this could have become a problem. How this could have resulted in a design solution (a pre-assembled web of strings, say, for Dennis to pull up in a minute or two). How Ruhl’s “time passes” could have become an “as much time passes as we think the audience can stand.” How easily, in other words, this could have been a scene that didn’t trust its audience, didn’t challenge its audience, didn’t trust its format, didn’t trust or challenge its actors — how easily this could have been a scene that would have looked for ways of approximating, on stage, the speed that editing makes possible on screen. Instead, it seems obvious to me that Dilworth didn’t see the central challenge of the scene as “how can we get a room built out of string up as quickly as possible,” but rather as “what might ‘time passes’ mean on this stage, in this theatre, for this production”?
It may not seem like much, this idea that actors and directors have to make decisions about time that cannot be dictated by the text. But it’s a thought that I’m beginning to see as a key difference between theatre in English and in German. German actors are just used to taking their moments, and to taking their time. If that means repeating a line over and over again, they do it. If it means delaying a line, they do it. If it means not saying anything a while, they do that. The words matter, sure — but the action matters as much, as does the silence. I don’t often see that kind of attitude on stage in the English-speaking world. It’s not that I think English or Canadian or American actors are more literal, that they need the words to spell everything out (though I do think there’s a bit of a tendency to make things obvious, especially in new writing). But it does seem to me that the relationship between text and subtext is a pretty direct and straightforward one in most English productions: you don’t have to say what you mean, your words can reveal layers of unspoken, even unconscious things — but you have to say something. Or perhaps what you’re doing while you’re speaking can undercut what you’re saying. But the idea that an actor has the freedom, the power, even the responsibility to shape time, to use the words the playwright has given her as one element of a much larger, more complex performance (and not necessarily the most important element): that, I think, is an idea that’s fairly alien to most Anglo performers, in practice if not in theory. (There is room for such performance, of course: when a servant sets a table, for instance. But I’ve never seen an actor in an English-language production do what I saw Elsie de Brauw do in Alvis Hermannis’ staging of Gorky’s Vassa a few months ago, at the Kammerspiele in Munich. De Brauw woke up and got dressed. It took at least ten minutes. Ten minutes of waking, of washing, of cleaning her teeth, of putting her clothes on. A radically naturalist performance, that was, a performance that risked sending its audience to sleep, a performance that both showed us a character and an actor washing and getting dressed; and a performance that was in no way scripted by Gorky. All de Brauw had was time — and the confidence that what she was doing was inherently interesting enough that we’d keep watching.)
“Taking time” can be the most naturalist of moves: life takes time, therefore life-on-stage has to take time too. So on one level, that scene in Eurydice may seem like a hardcore naturalist moment. Except that it’s set in the underworld, with a chorus of stones watching, and that both of its characters are dead. And except for the fact that what Oliver Dennis is doing isn’t actually what “the Father” is doing. Ruhl’s figure “creates a room out of string.” How do you do that? How do you “mak[e] four walls and a door out of string”? How do you stand such a wall up? A real, dyed-in-the-wool naturalist could have a field day with this. It could have been a five-hour scene of rope-twining, of turning strings into pillars, slowly transforming the limp and pliable into the sturdy and stable. Which, thankfully, is not what Dilworth does. Because, for all its investment in duration, this is not in fact a naturalist scene at all. It’s a profoundly theatrical one, set on what is obviously and quite happily a stage — with hooks in the floor and little hoops suspended from the grid. It’s a scene that unfolds in a place pre-designed for the building of a room of string. And although it still takes time to build that room, the time it takes is theatrical time, not real-life time. Which brings me back to my earlier point: we may be watching “the Father” build Eurydice a room here, but only by virtue of watching Oliver Dennis build that room, and the scene is staged in way that doesn’t seem to want us to forget that. That’s not to say that Dilworth is being metatheatrical (because snore) — simply that his theatre, in this show, is one that thrives on its own theatricality, that remaining aware of the actors’ presence and the designers’ work here is part of the aesthetic process, and part of the pleasure.
Stretching time isn’t all this show does, though. It also condenses it, and folds it, and bends it out of shape. And it does so in a way that I don’t think is merely a realization of what’s already in Ruhl’s text. There’s a very strong sense here that time doesn’t really pass in the underworld, and that the time scheme of the underworld doesn’t map onto that in the world of the living. Take the various, non-linear versions of the Lord of the Underworld: when Stuart Hughes, who plays him, first appears, as “the nasty interesting man,” his fancy trousers are too short: either he’s a slightly-behind-the-fashion, Thom-Brown-wearing hipster, or he’s an overgrown child. But when we reencounter him as the Lord of the Underworld, he’s an actual child, in dungarees and with a cardboard crown, riding a tricycle. He insists that he’s growing fast — and in a sense he is, reappearing shortly afterwards as a man-monster with a horned ram’s skull for a head. But in another sense, he isn’t at all: he’s always simply Stuart Hughes’s height and age. Ruhr’s script calls him “the child” in that middle phase, and sure, that’s right; but Dilworth doesn’t make any effort to disguise his actor, nor does Hughes pretend to be a kid: the reality of the actor and the oddly flexible identity of the character thus are both allowed to remain in play, and keep the age of the figure and the chronology of his development unsettled.
And then there’s the contrast in pace as we switch between scenes among the dead and those set among the living: the stasis of what happens in the underworld, the slow, even leisurely pace of the interaction between Eurydice and her father even after that long silent scene; and the sequence of quick, short, often frantic scenes of Orpheus’s attempts to reconnect with his lost love. Dilworth stages the latter literally on the sidelines, off the main stage, on raised platforms either side of the audience — Gregory Prest’s Orpheus is isolated there, on his own, but also in a kind of no-place. The underworld, as strange a space as it may be, is still a place where a house can be built, where there is room to move, to dance, to connect; Orpheus’ world does not even have that. All he has is a narrow strip of stage and a spotlight. And he’s constantly pressed for time.
One upshot of all this is that the question of “how much time passes” is left entirely open, in a narrative sense. The show allows multiple chronologies, multiple ways of telling time, to coexist, incommensurably. That alone would be kind of impressive in a theatrical culture so obsessed with “storytelling.” There is no one story being told here, nor is there a consistent narrative perspective, nor is there an easy way of reconciling the different perspectives. But beyond a mere narrative or representational device, the flexibility of time in this show becomes another theatrical manoeuvre worthy and demanding of attention in its own right: there is no “reality” here that the stage is trying to mimic; time works exactly how it’s supposed to work in each particular scene and for each particular scene. Time, that is to say, is a tool for the theatre in this show before it is a factor in the lives of the fictional characters in the play that is being staged. And that’s a distinction that matters, particularly, I suppose, in a production of a play that is repeatedly concerned with rhythm (it’s what Orpheus says Eurydice lacks). Dilworth’s show has a rhythm, but it’s the show’s, not the play’s and not even the characters’ — and that’s exactly as it should be.
A final point about time. At the end of the night, the rhythm of the show and of Ruhl’s text end up coinciding, as Orpheus returns to the underworld, now dead, and both script and staging unfold in the same measured sequence of devastatingly sad steps:
The sound of an elevator — ding.
Orpheus appears in the elevator.
He sees Eurydice.
He is happy.
The elevator starts raining on Orpheus.
He steps out of the elevator.
He sees the letter on the ground.
He picks it up.
He scrutinizes it.
He can’t read it.
He stands on it.
He closes his eyes.
The sound of water.
“He forgets.” It’s a sad line. It’s a much sadder moment on stage. Seeing those doors open, seeing Prest’s elation when he sees Eurydice; seeing that rain inside the elevator fall on him, and seeing the recognition disappear from his face — understanding then, too late, that the elevator’s water is Lethe — watching Orpheus go through the already familiar motions of the other dead who have lost the knowledge of what writing is, who all try to read by standing on letters or books; seeing all those steps towards the inevitable, one after the other, each retrospectively conclusive and ineluctable — the unhurried yet compulsive pace of that, the crushing but necessary neutrality of it — was a real experience. When does this scene take place? How much time passes between the previous scene and this one? I have no idea. It also doesn’t matter. Perhaps years, perhaps mere minutes. Perhaps Orpheus kills himself the moment he returns to the world of the living, and gets on the elevator to the underworld right away. Perhaps he has spent a sad lifetime up there. On stage, in this theatre, in and for this show, that’s irrelevant. That’s not how time or narrative works here. All that matters is this particular sequence, its particular rhythm. And although Dilworth follows Ruhl’s script to the letter (if memory serves), that’s not why it’s a powerful scene. “He is happy.” “He forgets.” “He can’t read it.” — Those are stage directions an actor can’t really “follow.” They’re invitations to make something happen, and a writer’s declaration that an actor is needed to make this a scene.
There’s so much more to say! There’s the set (by Lorenzo Savoini), which is a real set — a SET, not a living room, or a pretend living room, or something artfully arranged and rearranged to suggest different real spaces. No, none of that. It’s a strange, grey, metal-ish wall with neon tubes, and a ramp, and elevator doors. Those open to the reddest elevator the world has ever seen, full of flowers; and it really rains inside this elevator. Real water. Falling on real people. And what a lovely contrast it is: the realness of the water, the profound un-realness of everything else. If horses on stage are irreducibly real because sooner or later they will poop, water is irreducibly real because sooner or later, someone will really get soaked. Here it’s Prest, at the end — Monteith’s Eurydice has an umbrella. And because it’s a set, a stage landscape for actors to play in and not something that stands for something else, it doesn’t have to change: it is whatever the actors in it tell us it is. A beach; the underworld; a wedding; a street; an apartment. It’s not real. It doesn’t have to be. It shouldn’t be.
There’s the text. Yes. I know I always neglect the text, which makes me a bad English professor. But Ruhl’s text is lovely, and lyrical, and far removed from off-stage language; and yet it comes out of these actors’ mouths as if that were exactly how they talked. To me, that was pretty astonishing. The natural tone, the unnaturalistic dialogue — Ruhl’s text isn’t quite in verse, but it may as well be. Imagine if our actors were allowed to speak verse like this! It took a minute or two for the cast to get there: the opening lines sounded like lines so often sound on English stages (not quite real, not quite fake, not quite stagey, but that weird middle ground that passes for staged reality). But once they clicked with the text, it became theirs — without losing its literary quality. It’s brimming over with striking images. What does the language of stones sound like? “Like if the pores in your face opened up and talked.” The stones say this, but it doesn’t sound like a line. It sounds like something a stone might say. There is no reason Shakespeare can’t be spoken like this.
Perhaps that could be cast as the basic principle of this show: making the poetic seem normal without reducing its poetic quality. And that — the normalcy of the poetic — also happens to be a pretty neat approximation of what theatre is, or can be. Or should be.
But really, this show to me was all about time — time and freedom. The freedom to take exactly as long with a moment as the moment demands. Like this:
The Father tries to remember how to do the jitterbug in the underworld.
He does the jitterbug with an imaginary partner.
He has fun.
Orpheus and Eurydice dance together at their wedding.
They are happy.
They have had some champagne.
What does it look like to try to remember a dance? Before reading the play, I didn’t think that’s what Oliver Dennis was doing, though he certainly got lost in the dance he did — and I thought the imaginary partner was his daughter, and was surprised to see that Ruhl hadn’t spelled that out. Of course he has fun. But it’s a loaded kind of fun, and a solitary kind: and on stage, that is impossible to ignore. The dancing went on for a bit, as it should have. Did I know that Orpheus and Eurydice had “some champagne”? Not exactly. Was I watching Eurydice, her father, and Orpheus? Not exactly: somewhat, sure; but I was also watching three actors performing, and seemingly enjoying their performances. The pleasure of the dance was the characters as much as the actors — and ours. Dennis’ jitterbug was delightful; Monteith’s and Prest’s routine was delightful. They took up space and time. In a way, they ended too soon — but they clearly also had to end when they ended.
I have no idea, obviously, how rehearsals went for this show. I saw it close to the end of its run, so perhaps it had found a pace and rhythm over the weeks it was on stage. But what I can say is that I’ve rarely seen a show on a Canadian stage that gave me such a sense that things happened at the speed with which they unfolded because that was the speed and rhythm the actors had found, and for no other reason. There was a sense of autonomy there, a sense of freedom — and, as I’ve already said, a willingness to let the actors be actors, and to let the characters appear by virtue of not letting the actors disappear, that left seriously enchanted as the lights went down, and for a long time after. I wish this sort of thing happened to me more often around here.
PS.: Oh, yeah. The show is also about stuff, like daughters and fathers, and what have you. And men and women. And there’s a bit from King Lear that I found pretty troubling, but that’s Ruhl’s fault (or perhaps mine). And memory, and loss, and desire. And not being able to let go. And narcissism. But who wants to talk about the play when the performance was this good?
PPS.: Lest I be accused of gushing, let me hasten to add that I thought Dilworth is guilty of one major directorial misjudgement: when the Lord of the Underworld appears in his monstrous form to claim Eurydice as his bride, Dilworth has his voice amplified (or perhaps recorded? Because of the mask, I couldn’t tell if Hughes was actually speaking the words). Why? It didn’t enhance the impact of the words and it didn’t make the monstrous figure appear larger, greater, or more powerful — quite the opposite. The show had invested so much in its actors’ ability to conjure a supernatural fiction through their very real presence up to this point that this move to the loudspeakers, away from the actor’s body and the actor’s own powers, seemed not only like a retreat from its own principles, but actually proved that those principles were sound: Hughes in dungarees and on a tricycle was infinitely bigger and scarier than his disembodied voice ringing out from a loudspeaker could ever be. But I don’t want to end on a negative note. So let me also add that the Chorus of Stones (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Alex McCooeye, Oyin Oladejo) was hilarious and heartbreaking; and that everything I said above about the other actors also, remarkably, applies to this group of three heavily made up performers, costumed in dresses that rendered them near-immobile. Even so, they didn’t disappear into their performances.
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