The Greeks, who invented theatre, knew what it was for—to entertain and to ask hard questions about human existence. Fortunately, in the current economics-driven rush to put on musicals and light comedies, a few Canadian producers and directors are still staging drama that matters. In Toronto, two heavyweight shows look at the nature of power—and the destruction it wreaks on those who mishandle it.
Last week, The Master Builder by the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen began a six-week run (until Feb. 24) at The Royal Alexandra Theatre, in an acclaimed British production directed by Sir Peter Hall.
Starring stage and screen luminary Alan Bates (Women in Love, Far from the Madding Crowd) and Gemma Jones (who plays Mrs. Dashwood in the current film Sense and Sensibility),
Ibsen's demanding play represents a considerable risk for its producers, Ed and David Mirvish, who are better known for importing sure-hit musicals such as Miss Saigon.
Meanwhile, in a much smaller theatre in the city’s Harbourfront complex, director Richard Rose and his Necessary Angel Theatre Company are staging the North American première (until Jan. 28) of British playwright Howard Barker’s Seven Lears: The Pursuit of the Good.
One of the most thoughtful and adventurous directors in the country, Rose divides his time between the Stratford Festival (where he recently created an uproarious version of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors) and his own company, which has long been the main North American interpreter of Barker’s works. His explosive 1987 version of Barker’s The Castle drove some audience members from their seats—but is remembered by others as one of the outstanding productions of the past decade.
Barker and Ibsen both have a relentless interest in humanity’s darker side. Ibsen’s The Master Builder (1892) spins the tragic tale of Halvard Solness (Bates), a builder and architect in a small Norwegian town. For years, Solness has mercilessly dominated his
employees and his melancholic wife, Aline Qones). But soon after the drama begins, he meets his match with the arrival of the spirited, twentyish Hilde Wangel (Victoria Hamilton). When she strides unannounced into Solness’s house and demands that he honor a love vow he made to her 10 years earlier, the springs of tragedy are set.
This production recognizes the comedy inherent in Solness’s situation. Ibsen is too often played gloomily, but this is a Master
Builder that crackles with irony and humor. It dares to play with the nearly unbearable tension between the outward decorum of the characters—after all, this is a middle-class Victorian household—and the witches’ brew of passions seething beneath. And it does all this with a minimum of self-consciousness, allowing the rich subtext of mythic allusions and ideas to speak for itself.
Bates’s Solness commands his office and household with a sharp imperiousness. But a Solness who was merely strong would be insufficient. Bates’s great accomplishment in this part is to convey the shadows that haunt
the master builder. Solness has put his feelings (and the feelings of others) aside, in order to become the pure instrument of his own professional success. But his feelings persist nonetheless, in a paranoid moodiness that is tinder to the inflammatory attractions of Hilde. When she batters down his defences and enters his inchoate, infantile emotional life, he quickly becomes a prisoner of her fantasized vision of him.
Hamilton’s portrayal of the young woman is superb. In a role that has often been sabotaged by preciousness or hysteria, she lends Hilde enough robust normality to be sympathetic, while hinting at the deep psychic disturbance that powers her obsession with Solness. It could be argued that Solness himself is a major cause of her unbalanced state. His jestful courting and kissing of her when she was 12 amounts to a form of child abuse—a spiritual rape for which she is now, unconsciously, demanding retribution.
A couple of the supporting roles are badly played, particularly John Normington’s all-tooclownish Dr. Herdal. In the end, this is a strong but uneven production that cannot quite make it up the final slopes of Ibsen’s greatness.
In Seven Lears, Barker uses rapid, almost surrealistic scenes to explore the life of King Lear (Stuart Hughes) in the period before he became the monarch of Shakespeare’s play. Unlike the Bard’s hero, who achieves goodness just before his death, Barker’s Lear is born good, and then gradually grows more corrupt. His is a nightmare world where suffering and violent death are the norm. Lear murders his own wife, the puritanical Clarissa (Megan Follows) because she has killed his beloved mistress, Prudentia (Maggie Huculak)—who also happens to be Clarissa’s mother. It is all as if Ibsen’s cosmos had been turned inside out and the shadowy, suppurating desires of his subtext made shockingly real.
Apart from the argument that goodness is relative and depends on the existence of evil, the themes percolating through Barker’s dense, poetic text often seem tangled in obscurity. And, certainly, Seven Lears is not nearly as emotionally involving as some of Barker’s other works. But this is a fascinating, well-acted production nonetheless, raising important questions (and quite a few laughs) amid a fire storm of original visual effects. Whether portraying Lear on his fabulous flying machine or grovelling among corpses on a battlefield, this is theatre that knows there is more to life than escapism and the bottom line.
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