Theatre

Red-hot Drama

John Bemrose May 1 2000
Theatre

Red-hot Drama

John Bemrose May 1 2000

Red-hot Drama

Theatre

Once again, Toronto’s World Stage festival is offering some of the most exciting plays from around the globe

John Bemrose

It comes from the oldest drama ever written, yet the scene could have been torn from last night’s nightmare. Great metal doors rumble open to reveal a woman in a low-necked party dress. She is bent over a large bathtub, her hair dishevelled, her eyes glittering strangely, her chest and arms bathed in blood. She is Clytemnestra, the most terrible of all tragic heroines. In her hand is a butcher’s knife, and in the tub are the bodies of her victims: her husband, King Agamemnon, and his concubine, Cassandra. Played with riveting force by British actress Helen Schlesinger, the blood-crazed queen exults over her work, filling the theatre with poetry first heard 2,500 years ago—and casting a palpable spell over an audience at Toronto’s du Maurier World Stage festival. The play is the first part of The Oresteia, a trilogy by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus. In the hands of Britain’s renowned Royal National Theatre—and in a sinewy new translation by the late poet laureate Ted Hughes—its searing meditations on themes of revenge and justice seem as fresh as today’s news.

This Oresteia would turn heads wherever it was performed, but now it is one spellbinding production among many at the three-week festival of international drama (running until April 30). The Russians are represented by the famous Maly Theatre of St. Petersburg with its signature piece, Gaudeamus, a surreal look at life in the Gorbachev-era Soviet army. The Americans have shown up with Nixons Nixon, a major prizewinner at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, which focuses on a Watergate-plagued President Nixon. And the Cubans have weighed in with Otra Tempestad, a swirling pageant based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. There are also hit dramas from Germany, Ireland, Belgium and France.

Canadian playwrights are contributing 10 new shows, including Robert Fepage’s The Far Side of the Moon, Michel Tremblay’s For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again and AnnMarie MacDonald’s eagerly awaited new musical comedy, Anything that Moves (opening on April 27). It all adds up to a sampling of some of the most exciting and innovative contemporary theatre from around the world. Festival artistic director Don Shipley notes that New York City, Chicago and Eos Angeles used to host similar events. “But they’ve all closed now,” he says. “That makes us English-speaking

Scene from Gaudeamut (inset); Schlesinger (centre right) in The Oresteia: Soviet army silliness, and a tale of revenge

North America’s only showcase of international, contemporary drama.” And he adds, “We’re expecting 40,000 people this year— ticket sales are going through the roof. This is easily our most successful World Stage yet.”

The irony is that the curtain may soon close for good on the 16-yearold biennial festival run by the city’s Harbourfront Centre cultural facility. By next October, du Maurier and other tobacco companies will no longer be legally permitted to titlesponsor sporting and cultural events. That’s going to affect a number of jazz festivals, curling bonspiels and equestrian meets across the country. And it may knock the du Maurier World Stage right out of contention. About a third of the festival’s $ 1.9-million budget is donated by the tobacco giant, with another third coming from box office and the rest from federal agencies such as the Canada Council. Shipley points out that the $600,000 or so needed to keep the event running is not a lot by world cultural standards. “In Australia, the Sydney and Adelaide arts festivals have budgets of over $25 million, and so does the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. We’re not asking for a king’s ransom here.” But so far, he reports, “There’s no new sponsor waiting in the wings.”

Meanwhile, the shows go on—in more than a dozen locations around the city. One of the most sought-after tickets has been for Fire in the Head by 28-year-old German playwright Marius von Mayenburg. Non-German speakers can listen on headphones to an English translation—a process that flattens out the subtleties in the script. Yet there’s no missing the bleak humour and crude force of this play: it’s a stripped-down Greek tragedy in suburban drag. At the beginning, four members of a typical German middle-class family pose with earnest smiles for a photograph. By the end, two of them are horribly murdered, thanks largely to the explosive emotions packed into Kurt (Robert Beyer), an alienated teen who makes James Dean look like Beaver Cleaver. Caught in a fire, he spends much of the drama with a burn-reddened face smeared with cream. Behind this strange mask seethes a love of destruction that escapes rational understanding.

Later, Thomas Ostermeier, the plays director—and, at 30, a rising star on the European scene—was featured at one of the festivals interviews with outstanding figures in world theatre (future guests will include U.S. director Julie Taymor of Lion King fame on April 26, and legendary British theatre guru Peter Brook on April 29). One of the subjects touched on by Ostermeier was the high level of public funding for the arts in Germany. He sent a gasp through the audience when he noted that the prestigious Berlin theatre he heads, Schaubuhne am Lehniner Platz, gets 23 million marks (about $16 million) a year from government sources while having to generate only four million marks ($2.8 million) through the box office. That’s a subsidy rate of 83 per cent— compared with, for example, about 4 xh per cent at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. Many in the crowd were nodding as

Ostermeier added: “The whole tradition of strong support for the arts is itself one of Germany’s great cultural treasures.”

Among the myriad supplementary events at the World Stage—readings, tributes, a 24-hour, backto-back showing of 12 Hamlet films—one of the most interesting draws is a display of work by Michael Levine, the 39-year-old Canadian who, in the past decade, has become recognized as one of the world’s finest stage designers. While a slide show flashed images of his stark, monumental creations for such organizations as New York’s Metropolitan Opera, viewers could also browse through a selection of his notebooks—a treasure trove of whimsical sketches and notes that, at one point, call for a set to be decorated “with penis and vagina wallpaper.” Such decorative flair would have fit right in at the festivals Kabaret Erotika, a spirited late-night revue featuring salacious acts by local and international artists. One of the hits of the evening was Cuba’s Teatro Buendia company, which acted out a version of the Garden of Eden story that bared enough flesh to make an angel blush.

That company’s major offering to the World Stage, Otra Tempestad (Another Tempest), meanwhile, takes enough liberties with Shakespeare to make a purist turn blue. In a magic-realist spectacle that contains a few central figures from The Tempest, the characters Macbeth, Hamlet and Shylock show up too. The Cuban company has completely discarded Shakespeare’s plot and language, replacing it with an exuberant, colourfully costumed allegory about life on a mythical island that Cubans would no doubt interpret as their own. Prospero is depicted as a well-meaning tyrant—not unlike Fidel Castro—who seems helpless to prepare his people for the tides of change and destruction threatening them.

The masterful physical control exerted by Teatro Buendia has something in common with Canadas Soulpepper Theatre Company. Their staging of The Mill on the Floss, adapted from George Eliot’s 1860 novel by English writer Helen Edmundson, is one of the gems of the festival. The production offers an all-too-rare opportunity to see the work of Robin Phillips, believed by many to be Canadas finest director of classical theatre. On a stage dominated by a low wooden platform, Phillips moves his actors with the precision of a dance choreographer—not a step or gesture is without purpose. This lends the show a stylized quality of great beauty. Particularly effective is Edmundson’s device of having three different actors play Maggie Tulliver, the story’s heroine, at different stages in her life. Late in the show, all three Maggies are often on stage simultaneously, and often at loggerheads with each other, deepening the sense that this is a young woman profoundly torn among the competing hungers of her own soul.

On the other hand, Robert Lepage’s The Far Side of the Moon is a disappointment. An ambitious solo work performed by Lepage himself, the play focuses on two brothers—a TV weatherman and a failed academic obsessed with Soviet cosmonauts. Lepage dramatizes their rivalries with his usual transformative manipulation of ordinary objects: the window of a washing machine, for example, becomes the porthole of a spaceship and even a goldfish bowl. Spaceman-puppets stalk the stage, while old films of the Soviet and American space programs flicker on the walls. But Lepage’s attempt to metaphorically bind the vastness of outer space and the loneliness of his characters is emotionally flat.

Among the shows opening during the final week, The Suit from France is the hottest ticket—for the simple reason that it is directed by Peter Brook. Often touted as the world’s pre-eminent theatre director, Brook has reportedly woven his usual spell with this drama about a collapsing marriage, based on a story by South African writer Can Themba. Brook has not appeared in Toronto since his groundbreaking A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened in Canada more than 30 years ago. Unless the World Stage is rescued from its funding woes, this may well be the last chance Canadians get to see his wizardry at home. ESI