THEATRE

Trading places

Actor Richard Monette excels as a director

John Bemrose October 1 1990
THEATRE

Trading places

Actor Richard Monette excels as a director

John Bemrose October 1 1990

Trading places

THEATRE

Actor Richard Monette excels as a director

His intense green eyes circled with fatigue, director Richard Monette lit another cigarette and announced that he was suffering from a “tension-stress hangover.” On the previous night, Sept. 7, his new production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan opened at Toronto’s Theatre Plus, where it will run until Sept. 29, before moving to Ottawa’s National Arts Centre on Oct. 10. The third major show that

Monette, 46, has mounted in 1990, Saint Joan follows his productions of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Julius Caesar, both still running at the Stratford Festival. Over the past three years, Monette’s work at the southern Ontario festival has catapulted him from virtual obscurity as a stage director to national prominence. The key to his success, according to Stratford artistic director David William, lies in his extensive background as a classical actor. William believes that experience has helped make Monette into “one of the country’s most important directors of the classics.”

Although Monette has not acted for three years, his rich baritone still conveys the passion that he once brought to choice roles such as Hamlet. Speaking with the rhetorical finesse of someone who knows how to hold an audience’s attention, he said that, for him, Saint Joan is

about the difficulty of becoming an individual. “The world is always hard on individuals,” he said. “In Joan’s case, coming to individuality costs her her life. But it’s a good bargain, you know. Because, as she says herself, ‘They’ll remember me for ever and ever.’ ”

Monette’s own struggle for self-realization began in a lower-middle-class neighborhood of Montreal, where his father was a Frenchspeaking businessman and his mother an Ital-

ian immigrant. Monette used English at school and got by at home with fragments of all three languages. But his linguistic dexterity was a hindrance when, at age 15, he decided to become an actor. “There are very few roles for young Canadians with Italian-French accents speaking in English,” he said. Undaunted, he signed on as a student with voice teacher Eleanor Stuart. She worked on his accent and instilled in him an appreciation of the classics. “We would sometimes go over a single line of verse for one hour,” Monette recalled. “It drove me crazy. But it taught me how much care you have to put into a language play.” Astoundingly, Monette made his professional debut as Hamlet, arguably the most demanding role of the English-speaking stage. The 1964 production took place in the old Crest Theatre in Toronto, and the critics were vi-

cious with the 19-year-old newcomer. “It took me many years to get over what they wrote,” Monette said. “However, I learned then I had to be strong in this business, or give it up.” He went on to get a BA at Montreal’s Loyola College, and later to play small roles at the Stratford Festival. Then, in 1967, he went to Britain, appearing in the nude musical revue Oh Calcutta!, which he claims helped him to overcome his early shyness onstage.

Back in Canada, he put his enhanced talents to work in the first English-language performance of Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 1974, reaping wide acclaim for his portrait of a drag queen who decides to give up his disguises. Then, in the late 1970s, he returned to Stratford to work for artistic director Robin Phillips, taking on such top roles as Hamlet (that time, the critics approved), Henry V, Caliban and Romeo. He also appeared in numerous movies and TV dramas.

But in 1987, Monette abruptly gave up acting. At the time, he announced that he had simply lost his desire to go onstage, but he now concedes that he was suffering from a massive case of stage fright. “It started slowly,” he said, “and gradually got worse.” Monette did his best to put up with the pounding heart and feverish head that preceded every stage appearance. But then, during the 1987 run of George F. Walker’s play Nothing Sacred in Toronto, his fear deepened to a paralysing terror. Monette was unable to perform and had to be taken to a hospital.

“I literally thought I was dying,” he said.

Monette’s second career, as a director, took on momentum just in time to save him from what could have been a disastrous end to his life in the theatre. In 1988, Stratford artistic director John Neville hired Monette, who had directed only a small number of productions, to mount Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. The witty, joyous production, set in a 1950s Italy inspired by Monette’s Italian back-

ground, was a critical and popular triumph.

Monette, who is unmarried and lives in Stratford, says that as a director he feels more at home with comedy than tragedy. And certainly, a freshness and buoyancy suffuse his comic shows, although sometimes, as with last year’s Comedy of Errors at Stratford, they are marred by an excess of cuteness. One of his finest achievements is his moody version of As You Like It, which, along with Julius Caesar, runs at Stratford until Nov. 10. He has set the comedy in the Quebec of 1758. By chance, the production was running at the height of the Meech Lake debate. Monette tells the story of how, on Canada Day, the audience sang O Canada before the show. Then, as the stage lights went up, they saw the Quebec flag with its fleurs-de-lys waving. “They applauded,” Monette recalls, “and I believe they did it in solidarity. That really moved me.”

Now, Monette expresses the hope that his anxiety about performing is receding. “I’m going to try a little TV work,” he said. One incentive, he added, is the low salaries paid to stage directors. But Monette says that, despite his bad nerves and the low pay, his commitment to the stage has deepened. “The theatre is like a church,” he said. “It can take the sadness of people and make it meaningful. It gives form to their pain.” For Richard Monette, who has experienced both triumph and pain in the theatre, that is obviously a belief forged by long experience.

JOHN BEMROSE