“All is made new”

  • Denyse Lynde (Editor)
    The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Plays: Volume Three. Breakwater Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Michael Collins

In Canada’s national mythos, Newfoundlanders are perennially cast as warm, folksy, extroverted, traditional, and communitarian. This myth could recently be seen in two high-profile theatre productions: Stratford’s production of As You Like It, set in 1980s Newfoundland, and the Broadway-bound musical Come from Away, which is about travellers stranded in Gander on September 11, 2001. Both present Newfoundland as a participatory culture with a strong sense of narrative deriving from a heritage of oral storytelling—and therefore naturally suited to theatre.

This is why Volume Three of The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Plays is particularly interesting and necessary. None of the plays depict the warm, generous myth of Newfoundlanders as Canada’s “good poor” (as Edward Riche, a playwright included here, puts it in his novel Rare Birds). None are hidebound by tradition, or by the expectation of what Newfoundland “means” in Canada.

The plays in this collection are all unconventional. Berni Stapleton’s “A Rum for the Money” (2008) is the only one intersecting explicitly with “traditional” Newfoundland, with the long history of nautical peril, of bootleggers who duck under the international maritime border between Newfoundland and Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, a French possession. Riche’s “Hail” (2011) similarly deals with the social space where the criminal is interwoven with the mundane; although we are told the setting may be “a small city, under one million souls in the first decade of the twenty-first century”—it could be Winnipeg as easily as St. John’s. Though vastly different in tone and execution, both plays fixate on class, economic inequality, and masculine identity and friendship. Aiden Flynn’s “The Monk” (2010) is a character-driven two-hander that will be of particular interest to any scholar investigating the ways Newfoundland is imagined as part of the Viking world; it also takes male friendship as a theme.

Three of the plays are truly bold in their formal experimentation. Andy Jones’ one-man postmodern fairy tale “Albert” (1983) is playful yet unsettling. Lisa Moore’s “February” (2012), an adaptation of her novel of the same name, is choral in nature, voices weaving across temporal fragments in harmony, dissonance, and mutual solitude, meditating on grief, loss, and globalization.

The opening play, Governor General’s Award-winner Robert Chafe’s “Belly Up” (2003), depicts an abandoned blind man’s isolation. Desperation and hunger grow while hallucinations intensify as his mother, on whom he is entirely dependent, simply does not come home one day. The play has a live actor interacting with a pre-recorded projection, demanding precise timing and absolute adherence to the script. Reminiscent of Beckett, “Belly Up” becomes nightmarish as it progresses, an existential meditation on the dread of dependency weighed against the awful impossibility of freedom. It is excellent proof of editor Denyse Lynde’s thesis that “playwriting in Newfoundland is a complex and intricate field” where the limits and conventions of the form are continually pushed, reconsidered, broken: in these Newfoundland plays, “all is made new.”

This review ““All is made new”” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 169-170.

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