Theatre

Staging the classics with class

A brave new company makes its mark

John Bemrose August 3 1998
Theatre

Staging the classics with class

A brave new company makes its mark

John Bemrose August 3 1998

Staging the classics with class

A brave new company makes its mark

Theatre

What is the answer for a group of Canadian actors with a craving for the classics but no place to perform them other than the all-but-closed shops of the Stratford or Shaw festivals? They can throw caution to the winds and start their own company. That, in a nutshell, is the origin of Soulpepper, a new Toronto troupe dedicated to performing the great works of world theatre from Shakespeare to Pirandello. The 12 founding members include some of the country’s most talented performers, among them Albert Schultz, his wife Susan Coyne, Martha Burns, Ted Dykstra and Joseph Ziegler. They recently launched Soulpepper with critically acclaimed pro-

ductions of Molière’s 1666 comedy, The Misanthrope, and Schiller’s 1787 verse drama,

Don Carlos (both running until Aug. 30)—and in the process changed the face of theatre in Canada’s largest city.

“Every major Western centre has a company devoted to the masterworks,” notes Schultz, who has starred in theatres across the country and appeared in TV shows such as Street Legal. “It seemed ridicu-

lous that a city this size, with a theatre culture this mature, did not have one too.” So far, Soulpepper has no permanent

home, preferring for reasons of economy to rent suitable premises. The troupe is currently at the intimate du Maurier Theatre

Centre, but will appear next year in the much larger Royal Alexandra, where it will present Thornton Wilder’s classic, Our Town. And there are long-term plans to mount a year-round season of about half-adozen plays, some of which Soulpepper hopes to take on tour. Financing all this— plus a conservatory program to train young actors—is a major challenge. The company members themselves have canvassed corporate, private and government donors, raising about $380,000 of the $600,000 budget for their first two shows in a mere four months. The rest must come from box office. So far, healthy sales point to a surplus by the end of August. Says an elated Schultz: “I can tell you we’re going to be around for quite some time.”

For its opening two shows, Soulpepper has brought in a few high-profile guest artists, including the charismatic Brent Carver, the Canadian singer-actor who won a 1993 Tony for his role in Broadway’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman. But Soulpepper’s most effective star may well be its first guest director, Robin Phillips. A former head of Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre and the Stratford Festival (where he trained many of Soulpepper’s members more than a decade ago), Phillips is arguably the finest stage director in the country. Certainly, in shaping The Misanthrope and especially Don Carlos, he has turned in some of the best work of his career.

Don Carlos is so good that on opening night, even critics stood to applaud. This is the kind of show to restore faith in

serious theatre, and yet the wonder is that Soulpepper dared to mount Don Carlos at all. Schiller’s dense historical drama, set in the Spain of the Inquisition, is rarely performed, and the full text runs to well over four hours (Phillips has trimmed it to just under three). But the cast has made this museum piece shine like a new play— one that enchants with a sculpted, formal beauty yet cuts to the heart as efficiently as Toledo steel.

In writing Don Carlos, Schiller—the German Romantic is perhaps best known today as the author of the words to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy—was heavily under the influence of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He has made the Spanish court where the play is set into a kind of southern Elsinore, complete with a brooding, misunderstood prince, Don Carlos (Brent Carver), his faithful, Horatiostyle friend, the Marquis of Posa (Schultz), and a tyrannical monarch, Don Carlos’s father, Philip II (Peter Donat). Performed in the round on a small, sparsely furnished stage, this production rapidly achieves a compact explosiveness. Productions of classical plays are often marred by much mindless vocal thundering. But Phillips has coaxed his cast to deliver Schiller’s verse with clarity and intelligence: every gesture and syllable seems packed with meaning, creating the effect—common to all great theatre—of heightened life.

Anchoring a uniformly strong cast, Donat’s leonine, prowling Philip is one of the veteran actor’s most compelling creations. This is a king who knows not only the loneliness of power, but also its intoxication and danger: he moves like a hunter in his own court, every fibre of his body alert to the actions of his family and courtiers. Carver, too, is a standout as an emotionally awash young man in love with his own young stepmother, Queen Elizabeth (Nancy Palk), yet also drawn by the Marquis of Posa’s demand that he lead the people of Flanders in rebellion against their Spanish rulers.

Molière’s Misanthrope is not so superbly done, lacking the enveloping momentum and exuberance needed to make a play greater than the sum of its parts. But there is much that is charming here, including Schultz’s Alceste, the dyspeptic hero who hates mankind but loves his lady friend, Célimène (Palk). Hunching his shoulders, and apparently alive only in his hands and his head, Schultz makes Alceste into a recognizable contemporary: an intellectual whose contrariness masks a deeper malaise. Phillips brilliantly arms him with a furled green umbrella—a symbol of Alceste’s paradoxical combination of pessimism and hopefulness. It remains to be seen whether other directors will bless Soulpepper with such an inspired touch.

JOHN BEMROSE