Wednesday 15 July 2015

Shakespeare's Rebel not without a cause or two

Story backdrop & overview :  Author C.C. (Chris) Humphreys is a novelist (13 published so far) and playwright (four) whose works have been translated into more than a dozen different languages. He is also an actor -- who sometimes thinks he "owns" Hamlet -- and is an aficionado of swordplay. As well he is a good buddy of Bard Artistic Director Christopher Gaze who directed Shakespeare's Rebel. The play is Humphrey's distillation for theatre of his novel of the same name, a drama script he originally cranked out as a thesis project for his MFA degree at UBC.

At a speech last month in Denver to a forum of historical novelists, Humphreys praised the work of his fellow storytellers : "I don't claim to be much more than an entertainer. That's my main job, as I see it : to give people a bit of a break from their everyday lives. But I hope that perhaps by dwelling in the past for awhile, it enables them to more clearly see their present... We are all in the same boat, wrestling with the same demons in an often frustrating and insane business. Yet it is one that allows us to delve into history, uncover the famed and the forgotten and give them a fresh explore the world, beyond us, within us."

Plot quicky : Humphreys takes the fast-fading world of Elizabeth I at fin de siecle 16th century. The Irish are getting uppity. QEI's lover and field marshall Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex II, is sent to quell the disturbances. While there he plots to overthrow his aging Queen despite his sexual attachment to her. Her conspiracy-attuned Rasputin is one Sir Robert Cecil who is Devereux's true target. For his part, Cecil desperately wants Essex's head, and history tells us how all that played out

Enter a fictional character named John Lawley. He's England's most famous swordsman. He's also a binge drunk who has lost the love of Tess, the mother of their bastard son Ned, now a teenager and budding thespian with Lord Chamberlain's Men. Tess has had enough of Lawley in his cups for weeks on end and has taken up with an insipid chap named Sir Samuel D'Esparr instead. Lawley aches and pines and quaffs quarts of whisky at her loss.

Same time we find Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in launch mode. Chief actor Richard Burbage likes the mercurial Lawley but is fearful he will do damage to the fledgling theatre troupe. He agrees to take Lawley on as his fight director. Shortly, however, Lawley is conscripted to join Essex as a real-life cutthroat in Ireland. He can't quite escape the political grasp of Liz or dodge the crafty Cecil, either. 

All this political intrigue and folderol to achieve Humphrey's storytelling point : will Lawley get Tess back or not, and what prices must be paid along the way?

Noteworthy production point : Humphrey quipped to his Denver listeners last month that the historical dialogue he imagines "is inaccurate but plausible", what he calls "bygonese". "We happen to write stories that are set in the past. But we are inevitably reflecting out lives, our times, our influences to readers who live now...and the only thing that matters to me, at least to start, is story, story, story," he told them. Worthy examples of "bygonese" are Lawley sniggering at Tess's newly betrothed Sir Samuel D'Esparr : "He is poor in everything but fat -- the man is a walking pudding!" Or when Lawley dawdles after an order from QE1, she chides him : "About it, Mr. Lawley, the times press us!"

Does the novel survive as a stage show ?  People tell me they read historical novels for richness of backstory detail, nuance and narrative descriptors. The success of a novel's cultural commentary -plus- layers of intrigue-&-insight will depend on the writer's ability to imagine and create. How well they weave and serge myriad storyline threads together all the while advancing a unifying plot is always the trick.

Stage drama, by contrast, is built on just two primary footings : dialogue-&-action. A plot's stitchery is what the characters say and do, no more no less. Plays do not enjoy the luxury of an author's ramble that starts out "Once upon a time in a land far, far away...". What isn't self-obvious must be inferred, and quickly so, for a play to maintain cadence and pace. (And none of the convenient cheats of photo overlays and flashbacks and prequel peaks available to filmmakers, either. Plays are classic WYSIWYG, full-stop.)

Shakespeare's Rebel is fraught with intrigue and multiple story-lines -- a yarn -- that at times reminds one of a cat's playtoy : higgledypiggledy strands of plot all mangled and knotted. But some helter-skelter chaos to the contrary notwithstanding, Rebel mangages -- switching metaphors here -- to achieve trills of harmony as well as clang us with the odd cacophonous chord, too.

Characters that bind :  Humphreys' characterizations of Lawley (Benedict Campbell) and Tess (Jennifer Lines) meet well indeed his own objective of wanting to focus on "story, story, story". Particularly so because of these actors' talents. While not as compelling perhaps as he was in Lear, Campbell gives Lawley a raucous and robust presence. Lines was coy & charming & coquettish & caustic all at once in her role -- sheer delight to watch and hear. Bard veteran Colleen Wheeler virtually reprises her 2013 role as Elizabeth Rex both in delivery and costume. Her imposing presence and petulance -- "God's teeth!" she swears, a la Glenda Jackson -- are forceful and compelling, as is her fatal love for Devereux. 

John Murphy as the tragic Earl of Essex displayed appropriate bi-polar moods and actions, while Robert Klein's "puritan with a hunchback" Sir Robert Cecil was a convincing evil coward.

As D'Esparr, David Marr once again wins Pan American Gold for his stentorian basso profundo comedia projections : no better boffo in the land. 

Production values contribute and detract : As a long-ago coffee house drama coach, I found myself uneasy and edgy that the troupe tried to stretch out the blocking in order to fill the available space in the Douglas Campbell Theatre rather than change the space to fit the action. I.e. fire marshall considerations aside, the south riser and its overhead light bar needed to be moved north a full dozen feet to compress the open acting space at that end to match the size of the thrust stage rectangle opposite. Only during the 5-man swordfight scene did the south-end open space get used effectively : the rest of the time actors were simply plopped in its corners to fill it out, and it didn't work well either visually or dramatically.

That wee kvetch aside, the "stage north" set by Marshall McMahen that quadrupled as Globe stage and castle and pub and Tower of London worked crisply and effectively. 

Costume Designer Christine Reimer's threads for all these characters were spot on in their wealth of variety -- from Queen Bess's gold and cream regal gown (seen previously in Rex) to the men's unbuttoned doublets and capes to the working class peasant dress of the publicans and actors, all of the costumes were a real time-appropriate treat to the eye.

For his part, Fight Director Nicholas Harrison had a breathless workout of a challenge staging all the swordplay scenes, but save a wimpy faux performance early on by Essex showing off in private for Lawley, quite convincing choreography the rest of the show when the slash-&-bash routines were "game on". 

One staging caveat : always better to use a scalpel than a bludgeon, I believe. Essex's flatulence / bowel movement scene is nothing if not puerile and thus condescending to the viewer -- even worse than Costard's dead chicken & bra nonsense from Love's Labours Lost. Had Essex merely said to Lawley "I prefer to read Bess's letter whilst I vacate!" as he disappeared bare-bum behind the curtain would have been a more risible schtick for sure. 

Who gonna like : Rebel brings together history and make-believe in a delightful spin of a story, as Humphreys hoped it would. Perhaps some over-cute word-choices in the script -- the D'Esparr = "Despair" joke worked only once, not a 1/2-dozen times. Still this is an evening enjoyably spent re-imagining all these influences that converged in time & space during that remarkable epoch in the neverending saga that is Britannia. Shakespeare's Rebel is an event well worth a summer's gambol through Vanier Park. 

Particulars :  Adapted for the stage from his novel by C.C. Humphreys. Now on until September 19th at the Howard Family Stage at Vanier Park. Run-time 140-minutes plus a 20-minute intermission. Tickets and schedules for repertory performances with Bard's three other plays via or by phoning the box office at 604.739.0559.

Production crew : Director Christopher Gaze.  Costume Designer Christine Reimer.  Scenic Designer Marshall McMahen.  Lighting Designer Adrian Muir.  Composer & Sound Designer Murray Price.  Production Dramaturg Martin Kinch.  Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews.  Fight Director Nicholas Harrison.  Stage Manager Joanne P.B. Smith.  Assistant Stage Manager Lorilyn Parker.  Apprentice Stage Manager Ruth Bruhn.  Apprentice Director Jacquie Loewen.

Performers :  Anousha Alamian (William Shakespeare).  Michael Blake (Richard Burbage).  Ian Butcher (Thomas Waller).  Benedict Campbell (John Lawley).  Craig Erickson (William Sly).  Robert Klein (Sir Robert Cecil).  Jennifer Lines (Tess).  David Marr (Sir Samuel D'Esparr).  John Murphy (Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex II).  Chirag Naik (Ned Lawley).  Declan O'Reilly (St. Lawrence).  Andrea Rankin (Sarah).  Nathan Schmidt (Lord Sandys).  Colleen Wheeler (Queen Elizabeth).


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