THEATRE

History as drama

Sir Wilfrid Laurier haunts a playwright

John Bemrose July 15 1991
THEATRE

History as drama

Sir Wilfrid Laurier haunts a playwright

John Bemrose July 15 1991

History as drama

THEATRE

Sir Wilfrid Laurier haunts a playwright

For a moment near the end of Laurier, a ghostly presence electrifies the stage at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille. Dressed and made up to look like Sir Wilfrid Laurier, one of Canada’s greatest prime ministers, Stephen Ouimette moves out of a spotlight and appears in vivid silhouette. For a magical instant, his resemblance to Laurier—with the high forehead and flyaway hair so familiar from the $5 bill—transcends mere imitation. It is as if the ghost of the dead politician had been caught in the act of manipulating events on stage. The best of Laurier has that kind of urgency. The fifth instalment of Toronto playwright Michael Hollingsworth’s epic dramatization of Canada, The History of the Village of the Small Huts, the play examines issues of Laurier’s time that are of pressing concern now: Quebec’s place in Confederation and the question of what it means to be Canadian.

Hollingsworth, 41, claims that postMeech Lake anxiety helped transform his play, which runs until July 21. In a recent interview, he told Maclean’s that he had originally intended to write a farce about Edwardian Canada. But then, the constitutional crisis compelled him to explore Laurier’s story more deeply. He discovered that Laurier—who was prime minister

from 1896 to 1911—played a major -

role in shaping contemporary Canada. “We tend to think that it’s institutions and social movements that change the nature of the country,” he said. “But it’s these wild, wired individuals who make things happen.” Added Hollingsworth: “Just look at Mulroney. He promised he’d make Canada unrecognizable— and he has.”

In his dark glasses and black vest, Hollingsworth exudes the tough-guy air of a gambler who tells it like it is. He argues that if Laurier came back now and saw the predicament Canada is in, “he’d be so grossed out he’d be speechless.” In Hollingsworth’s view, Laurier’s greatest accomplishment was to transcend the forces of racial and religious divisiveness that have always threatened to tear Canada apart. “Laurier defined Canada as a multinational state that believes in liberty,” he said. “But now—with the rise of the Reform party and the Bloc Québécois—some Canadians are trying to split the country along the old racial

and nationalist fault line that Laurier feared.” Hollingsworth, who grew up in Toronto after emigrating from Wales in 1956, launched The History of the Village of the Small Huts (the series takes its name from the translation of the Huron-Iroquois word “Kanata”) in 1985, with the story of early French settlement. Subsequent instalments have looked at the British colonial period, the 1837 rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada and the saga of Louis Riel and Confederation.

All those shows used broad farce to illuminate their central thesis: that Canada’s survival is something of a miracle, given the buffoonish ineptitude of many of its leaders. Yet in Laurier, Hollingsworth strikes a new note.

The play lionizes Canada’s

first French-Canadian prime minister, although it also shows his many faults, from priggishness to cynicism in the use of power.

In keeping with the style of the production, Ouimette’s Laurier is as much marionette as human being. His body rigid, his nose well in the air, the actor wheels through the events of Laurier’s life like a talking doll, his eyes rolling with bafflement and outrage at the world’s obtuseness. The wonder is that such a performance can convey so much psychological and intellectual subtlety. Ouimette makes Laurier’s shift from his youthful opposition to Confederation to his later federalist vision entirely believable. And the character is often hilarious in his disinterested aloofness, like when he delivers a political monologue while making love to his squealing mistress, Emilie (Deanne Taylor), from behind.

The 32 other characters are much more crudely drawn. The powerful leader of the Quebec church, Bishop Bourget (played by a ruggedly forceful Robert Nasmith), is a scheming monster who threatens Roman Catholics with damnation if they vote for Laurier’s Liberals. John Blackwood's amusing John A. Macdonald is a booze-sodden fool. Such one-dimensional portraits have the intended effect of making Laurier look good. But they also give much of the play a haranguing quality. Hollingsworth’s script also flounders when it tries to g cover too many historical is8 sues—and makes the play I seem more like a lecture than 5 a dramatic vehicle.

Yet the production holds attention, partly because of the uncanny echoes it creates between Laurier’s time and the present. When Louis Riel (Arturo Fresolone) shouts that the English “want to turn this country into one big Ontario,” Canada’s current regional alienation becomes palpable. Hollingsworth’s hallucinatory staging of Laurier on a small, black-draped stage is also impressive—as is the sheer logistical ability of the eight actors who portray 33 characters. Often, in more than 100 brief scenes, they must find their way in the dark to a place where a spotlight will precisely illuminate their faces—yet they do jo not miss a single cue. Laurier has its shortcomings, but it is 3 a brave, complex and serious I attempt to address the issue I of Canada’s survival.

JOHN BEMROSE