Friday, August 23, 2013

An Audience with Helen Mirren

Along with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the National Theatre in London has been one of the more prominent performing arts institutions to embrace and exploit the "live" broadcasting of its shows to cinemas internationally. Indeed, until yesterday my first and only experience of this now common feature of the local multiplex line-up was the National's broadcast of its production of Phèdre, back in 2009. That production starred Helen Mirren, and I wrote about it here. And so it was only fitting, I suppose, that yesterday evening, for my second go-round with such performance technology, I should have chosen another National star vehicle for Dame Helen.

In fact, yesterday's screening of Peter Morgan's The Audience (which Richard and I failed to take in on our most recent trip to London, as I mention here) was an "encore presentation" of the live broadcast that took place on June 13, the National having discovered how, via the magic of digital video, to expand its theatre audiences (and maximize its profits) infinitely. To alter slightly the title of a recent performance studies anthology, Perform, Record, Repeat. In this case, the maxim applies equally to the play's main character, with Mirren once again stepping into the sensible shoes of Elizabeth II, a role she first essayed (to award-winning effect) in the 2006 film The Queen, also written by Morgan. Both properties are essentially imaginative, behind-the-scenes reflections on the relationship between Buckingham Palace and Downing Street. However, whereas the film focused on the Queen's often testy relationship with a single Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in the aftermath of Princess Diana's death, the play ranges over 60 years, dramatizing what might have been said during the monarch's weekly Tuesday audiences with the 12 PMs who have served under her since she first acceded to the throne.

It's actually a rather thin conceit on which to hang a whole play. Mercifully Morgan and director Stephen Daldry prevent the evening from simply devolving into a series of clever vignettes through a number of dramaturgical innovations. First, the play does not unspool chronologically. Following an opening address to the theatre audience from the Queen's all-seeing equerry (a wonderfully wide-eyed--and pursed-lipped--Geoffrey Beevers) that sets the stage (down to the colour of the upholstery) for what we are about to see, the lights come up on the Queen and John Major (Paul Ritter). It's the mid-1990s and the one PM among the 12 who least wanted the job is feeling threatened from all sides, including within his own party; the Queen, who makes a point of reminding Major that he, unlike her, chose both his current profession and to run for its top office, advises him to quell the dissenters by calling for a leadership vote. Major will return later in the play, this time advising the Queen on concessions to public opinion during the height of the monarchy's unpopularity surrounding the marital discord between Charles and Diana. But for the time being we are next transported back in time, to the Queen's initial meeting with her very first PM, Winston Churchill (Edward Fox, suitably avuncular and completely unrecognizable). Among other things, this allows us to marvel at the first of several instances of stage magic during which Mirren undergoes several quick costume changes and be-/de-wiggings that either make her appear more youthful or age her, as needed. And, indeed, the shifting silhouette, gait and posture of her Elizabeth are among the many outward signs that keep us invested in a performance that, while ranging emotionally, is quite physically static.

A lot of the bigger emotions come in scenes between the Queen and her younger avatar, the Princess Elizabeth (a delightfully impetuous Nell Williams). Together, these interludes constitute the second formal innovation of the play. Not only do they help break up the different PM interviews; they also collectively show us how much of her personal self the Queen has had to give up, or hide away, in order to remain, as she puts it at the end of the play, invisible in the most visible public role in the world.

Morgan also finds the right mix of the personal and the political in his dramatic conjecturing about what the Queen and her successive PMs might have talked about. And the mix goes both ways. By that I mean, the Queen is allowed to quiz Sir Anthony Eden (Michael Elwyn) about the UK's secret directive to support, along with France, an invasion by Israel of Egypt over the Suez Canal, and also to challenge Margaret Thatcher (Haydn Gwynne, wonderfully imperious, and with the Iron Lady's trademark diction) over her failure to support sanctions against apartheid South Africa. At the same time, she lends a sympathetic ear to Gordon Brown (Nathaniel Parker) when he confesses he is suffering from depression, just as she expresses genuine distress when Harold Wilson (Richard McCabe, in a superb performance that combines elements of comic burlesque and tragic depth) tells her he plans to resign because his formerly photographic memory is showing tell-tale signs of Alzheimer's. Wilson, the Labour PM from Huddersfield, appears in three scenes with the Queen, which track a relationship that, over 12 years and two stints at No. 10, moved from mutual suspicion and antipathy to genuine respect and, Morgan suggests, warm friendship.

It is here, and elsewhere, in even briefer but no less meaningful exchanges between the sovereign and other of her first ministers, that Morgan gives us a deeper insight into the uncanny, necessarily doubled nature of such audiences--in which both parties must decide whether and how to communicate what they mean without actually saying anything.

In the theatre, of course, we call that acting.


Monday, August 19, 2013

John Greyson and Tarek Loubani Arrested in Egypt

Canadian Government: Help Free Tarek and John

So events in Egypt just got a whole lot more personal with news this past weekend that friend, filmmaker and York University professor John Greyson (right, above) had been arrested in Cairo along with Dr. Tarek Loubani, a medical doctor from London, Ontario. The two men had been en route to Gaza, where Dr. Loubani regularly travels to train physicians in cardiac and trauma support as part of an initiative sponsored by the University of Western Ontario; Greyson was accompanying him in connection with a possible documentary project about the al-Shifa hospital in the region. For the latest developments in the case, see the following Globe article.

There is no indication yet why the two men have been detained, although they have been in touch with family and Canadian consular officials and have stated that they are both being well-treated. Still, our government must do everything in its power to secure their immediate and safe release. An on-line petition urging just this has so far collected more than 5,000 virtual signatures. Consider adding yours here.

Also, use social media to write/prompt Stephen Harper and John Baird, and to keep the pressure on both the Canadian Embassy in Cairo and the Egyptian Embassy in Ottawa. Here are the relevant contact details:

John Baird – Minister of Foreign Affairs Canada
Twitter: John Baird @honjohnbaird
Twitter: Department of Foreign Affairs Canada @DFATDCanada

Stephen Harper – Prime Minister of Canada

Canadian Embassy in Egypt:

Egyptian Embassy, Ottawa, Canada


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Salome's Clothes at SummerWorks

An article in yesterday's Globe and Mail singled out some highlights so far of this year's SummerWorks Theatre Festival in Toronto, on through this Sunday. I was very pleased to see that the show that most affected writer Martin Morrow was Donna-Michelle St. Bernard's Salome's Clothes.

Though I haven't seen the play performed, I have read it, as I was recently commissioned to write an introduction to it for an anthology of Canadian postcolonial drama in which St. Bernard's work will be included, and which will be published by Playwrights Canada Press later this fall. So I feel warranted in vouchsafing Morrow's assessment: the play is at once a harrowing domestic tragedy about a too-proud mother and the young daughters she sacrifices and a subtle political allegory about the global economic indebtedness of Côte d'Ivoire.

On the latter front, it is also worth mentioning that St. Bernard, the award-winning playwright of Gas Girls, artistic director of New Harlem Productions, and former managing director of Native Earth Performing Arts, is already about a dozen plays into her "54-ology," her ambitious project to write a work of performance for each of the countries in Africa. She has so far proved that hers is a singular dramatic voice we cannot afford to ignore. Just as we cannot ignore the continent St. Bernard has made her subject.

Salome's Clothes runs at Theatre Passe Muraille's main space for four more performances.


Friday, August 2, 2013

Leaky Heaven's der Wink

Leaky Heaven's latest performance work, der Wink, is a thrilling immersive experience, a multi-sensory exploration of space and how that influences the sense we make of our own embodied encounters in and with that space. Working with performers Alex Ferguson, Nneka Croal, Sean Marshall, Jr., and Kiki Al Rahmani, and with designers Lee Su-Feh (movement), Jesse Garlick (architect), Parjad Sharifi (scenography), and Nancy Tam (sound), for the rest of this weekend director Steven Hill transforms the Russian Hall on Campbell Avenue in Strathcona into what he calls, in his program notes, "a contemplation of co-occupancy and co-presence."

That transformation starts (and maybe ends) with where the audience sits upon entering the hall. Wooden chairs have been arranged on the floor into a square grid, but not all facing in the same direction, so that depending on when and with whom we arrive, we might find ourselves at a diagonal from the person we came with and/or staring directly at a stranger. Already familiar bonds of intimacy are shifting and re-aligning. The sounds of water lapping at a shore gradually give way to more industrialized sounds as shafts of harsh white light bisect the hall from the front and back and warmer orange shins illuminate the floor from the sides. The performers begin arranging a series of vertical cardboard panels--some with square openings cut into them--around the perimeters of the audience, using simple concrete blocks to weight them. Projections turn these panels into the facades of buildings, and as Ferguson takes a seat among the audience and begins to speak into his head mic about matters at once soulful and soulless we might be forgiven for thinking initially that the evening will be about urban anomie and our collective alienation from our built environment.

The piece definitely plays with such sentiments, but in ways that challenge the passivity and safe distance of traditional theatrical spectatorship. To this end, the cardboard panels do not remain on the outside edges of the audience; rather, over the course of the next hour, they are constantly being moved up and down and across our various rows, arranged into different configurations that, depending on where we are sitting, give us a front or side or rear window onto a series of mini social dramas enacted by the performers. Tam's referencing of Bernard Herrmann, the composer who scored so many of Alfred Hitchcock's films, implicates us directly in the voyeuristic roles we habitually assume within the scopic regimes of both the theatrescape and the cityscape, as, in this case, we spy through those cut-out squares in the cardboard a disturbing encounter between one couple at a private bathroom mirror, a flirtatious encounter between another at a public one, and a mother's rather perverse schooling of her son in the ways of discipline and punishment.

But we are not just watching the performers. We are also watching each other watching the performers. And, in doing so, we are not just part of the performance installation; we are the installation. This is underscored most materially when, near the end of the piece, the cardboard panels are rearranged to wall off different sections of the audience from others. It induces a moment of reverse agoraphobic panic (at least it did in me), as, suddenly separated from my community, my public, I no longer have any sense (quite literally) of my place within it.

Mercifully, the walls erected between us are only temporary. As Tam strums a tune on her ukulele and sings with perfect pitch about connection (is there anything this woman can't do?), the performers turn the cardboard panels on their sides, creating a maze, which they then move about, now seeking out direct encounters with individual audience members in order to offer us forgiveness. If, as the somewhat embarrassed recipient of one such performative absolution, I was reminded momentarily, in looking across a piece of horizontal cardboard at my partner, of the adage about good fences making good neighbours, I was also grateful to the always intelligent Hill and his extraordinarily talented collaborators for reminding me that theatre is precisely the collective public trespass we need upon our individual privacy.

Go see this show.