Smart and interesting year-end summation of new work on the Canadian stage, including a nifty shout-out for Hannah Moscovitch’s East of Berlin—due up in the Readings series April 22-25. Certainly the observations about the challenges of creating full, dynamic new plays (and the perils of the workshop process) ring as true south of the border (the other one) as they do for our northern neighbors.
Saturday, December 26, 2009
‘It is a hard, hard thing to write a good play’
Robert Cushman, National Post
These are the theatrical high-points of 2009: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Stratford’s Three Sisters and The Importance of Being Earnest. Soulpepper’s Travesties and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Robert Lepage’s day-long Lipsynch, more as an event than as a finished whole, though its best moments were heart-stopping. Lepage’s The Nightingale for the Canadian Opera, and the same company’s Madama Butterfly. (Leave it to opera to produce the year’s greatest visual treats.) CanStage’s revival of Morris Panych’s 7 Stories, if only for Melody Johnson’s breathtakingly funny performance in its last scene.
None of those, it has to be confessed, is a new Canadian play. Lipsynch doesn’t quite count; all the others are old and/or foreign (and among the latter, Judas was a revival even as a production). Brad Fraser’s True Love Lies would come nearest to making the cut; other contenders were Kristen Thomson’s The Patient Hour, Michael Healey’s Generous, and, with a few more misgivings, Andrew Moodie’s Toronto the Good and Panych’s The Trespassers, a departure for him if not an entirely satisfying one. Add in two delightful home-grown musicals, Mimi and The Princess and the Handmaiden.
That list may not seem like much, but it isn’t disgraceful and it certainly isn’t unusual. Since the year’s end is also the decade’s, I’ve tried reckoning up the plays that delighted me when I first saw them and — a stiffer test — when I remember them. It’s another short list. Thomson’s I Claudia is on it, of course, even with the proviso that it’s sui generis, the impact of its writing inextricably linked to that of its performance — by, of course, its author. Like Healey’s The Drawer Boy, it has set impossible standards for its author’s subsequent work; that kind of surprise lightning rarely strikes twice. Healey’s Plan B probably belongs there; John Mighton’s Half Life certainly does.
So do Florence Gibson’s Belle, Claudia Dey’s Trout Stanley and nearly everything by Hannah Moscovitch, especially East of Berlin and The Russian Play; one of the more perplexing myths of our time is the one that holds that plays by women are not getting produced.
Another is the one that suggests the paucity of good new plays is some sort of ahistorical scandal. The implication is always that there ought to be more of them and that it must be someone’s fault that there aren’t. Against this, I would like to quote three theatrical sages. One of them is Sean O’Casey, who said, with devastating simplicity at the end of a long career in which his triumphs were outnumbered by his failures, “It is a hard, hard thing to write a good play.” Another is Peter Hall, who wrote that a decade that produces two really good plays is lucky. The third is Max Stafford-Clark, director of Britain’s pioneering Joint Stock group, who lamented that his group’s success with the R&D method of developing plays had given rise to the verb “to workshop,” meaning “a way in which limping plays are helped on to the stage.” When a play fails in Toronto, somebody is sure to say that it hadn’t been workshopped enough. It’s likelier to have been workshopped too much, to the point where all concerned have a vested interest in getting it on somehow. This partly accounts for all the productions that think all you need is an Issue, and that seem to have confused drama with social work.
It is true that nearly all the plays we see are physically and imaginatively small. (That’s one reason Judas Iscariot, which was neither, felt so liberating.) Economic pressures have combined with the influence of TV to make our writers rein themselves instinctively in. In reaction, exaggerated praise gets heaped on shows that seem at least to have Big Themes; plays like those of Wajdi Mouawad or Michel Marc Bouchard or (lest anyone think I’m prejudiced against Quebec writers) The Danish Play: plays that bend their characters out of shape or hardly bother to create them in the first place. If you’re looking for a good epic then try a real one: the multi-part City of Wine; or Peter Hinton’s Swanne trilogy at Stratford, uneven, of course, but exhilarating, especially as staged by its author. Hinton, to slightly change the subject, is our most consistently (and constructively) imaginative director. Ottawa, where he now runs the English theatrical wing of the National Arts Centre, is fortunate to have him; but one wonders why Stratford and Soulpepper, for whom he staged superb productions of, respectively, The Duchess of Malfi and The Way of the World, have let him go. Equally perplexing is the loss to Stratford, under the new regime, of the quieter talent of Miles Potter whose track record from Romeo and Juliet to Orpheus Descending was impeccable.