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Thursday, September 15, 2011

First-Person: J. Kelly Nestruck on revivals

(Nestruck and Baby, credit: Gillian Goerz, www.gilliang.com)

Canadian revivals on the rise.
Starting from Soulpepper's White Biting Dog...
by J. Kelly Nestruck

Judith Thompson's White Biting Dog won a Governor General's Award for drama in 1984, but does that actually mean it's any good? A new revival at Soulpepper Theatre Company has allowed Toronto critics to argue the question.

In his review of Nancy Palk's production for the website Stage Door, critic Christopher Hoile - who lost his mainstream regular outlet when Toronto weekly Eye recently morphed into critic-less The Grid - wondered how such an "absolute mess" could have ever won the G-G. "It was certainly not Soulpepper’s intention, but this revival of Thompson’s play with a cast who give it their all only demonstrates that it really is not 'the great Toronto play' that people have claimed it is," he wrote.

My reason for highlighting this White Biting Dog debate is simply to, well, highlight the fact that this debate is taking place at all. Isn't that marvelous?

Meanwhile, in the National Post, Robert Cushman suggested that, perhaps, much canonized Canadian drama was weaker than its reputation. He ended his negative review of White Biting Dog with this not-quite non-sequitur:  "If [Claudia] Dey hadn't given up writing plays she might rank with Michael Healey, John Mighton and Hannah Moscovitch among those who are producing work better than anything from the supposed Golden Age of Canadian drama."

Of course, not everyone agrees with that "supposed". Indeed, Robert Crew in the Toronto Star dished out a full four stars for Soulpepper's production of White Biting Dog and called Thompson's early work "one of the most important and influential Canadian plays of the last 30 years,", while NOW Magazine's Debbie Fein-Goldbach wasn't as keen on the production, but wrote the play "feels as current as ever."



Mike Ross, Fiona Reid in Soulpepper's White Biting Dog (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

My reason for highlighting this White Biting Dog debate is simply to, well, highlight the fact that this debate is taking place at all. Isn't that marvelous? The old problem of a lack of revivals of English Canadian plays seems to have vanished - in Toronto at least. In recent years, theatres have been reviving plays from the past with increasing frequency - and audiences and critics finally have an opportunity to have an informed conversation about our dramatic history, because, after all, plays only really exist off the page and on their feet.

It was only years later that I realized how rare it would have been for students in the R.O.C., to be able to study a Canadian play and then see a production of it.


Growing up in Montreal, it never occurred to me that Canadian plays were any less worth studying or reviving than any other plays. True, I don't recall reading any English-Canadian plays, but I do remember studying Gratien Gélinas's 1959 drama Bousille et les Justes just as we did Jules Romain's Knock and Jean Anouilh's Antigone in French class, then being able to go to see a revival of Bousille at Théâtre Denise-Pelletier with my classmates. 

It was only years later that I realized how rare it would have been for students in the R.O.C., to be able to study a Canadian play and then see a production of it. In the country's theatre ecology, second productions have always been harder to get than first productions thanks to an obsession with the "new Canadian play". And revivals of older plays? For a long while, they were even rarer.

Factory Theatre - whose artistic director Ken Gass tried and failed to create a new theatre dedicated to Canadian revivals in the 1980s - may have kicked off the current revival trend in Toronto. For at least a decade, every Factory season has included an older Canadian play, often but not always a George F Walker. This year Gass is directing a much-needed revival of Tomson Highway's The Rez Sisters.

Meanwhile, after starting their exploration of "Canadian classics" with David French's Mercer trilogy, classical theatre company Soulpepper has made some more surprising choices of late, such as Sharon Pollock's Doc and Guillermo Verdecchia’s Fronteras Americanas. 

At Canadian Stage, we've had Morris Panych's 7 Stories and Michel Tremblay's Saint Carmen of the Main in recent seasons. And this upcoming season, Tarragon Theatre is belatedly getting into the revival act with Tremblay's The Real World? nearly 25 years after it had it's English-language premiere there. (OK, maybe we don't need quite so many Tremblay revivals!)

John Mighton had essentially given up playwriting when director Daniel Brooks revived Possible Worlds...


Why do Canadian revivals matter beyond allowing critics and audiences to get in on the game of canon-building that academics have hitherto monopolized? Well, they also send a message that our country's dramatic literature (and its dramatists) are not disposable objects. Would French's death last year have got nearly as much attention as it did in Toronto if the last major production of his play in town had been his late-career, sub-par Mercer play Soldier's Heart in 2001?

Revivals can also help give a much-needed boost to artists in the middle of their career. John Mighton had essentially given up playwriting when director Daniel Brooks revived Possible Worlds to great acclaim at Theatre Passe Muraille in 1997. After that, Mighton picked up his pen again and wrote his best play to date: Half Life. (We're still waiting on the next one.)

What are some English Canadian plays you'd like to see get revived? If Rez Sisters goes well, I'd like to see Highway's Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasking at Factory next. I'd also be curious to see if John Herbert's Fortune and Men's Eyes and John Coulter's Riel stand up... The list is endless, really.

And as for my thoughts on White Biting Dog? Well, in my review, I hedged my bets on the merits of Thompson's play, writing that "proves to be all bark and no bite – at least it does in director Nancy Palk's… production." I guess I'll just have to see another revival of it before I decide...


J. Kelly Nestruck is a critic (and blogger) for the Globe and Mail and the UK's The Guardian.

2 comments:

  1. Great to see J. Kelly Nestruck writing here

    ReplyDelete
  2. Indeed. And I'd love to see a revival of Ecstasy of Rita Joe and Billy the Kid.

    ReplyDelete

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