Canada on Stage

Reviewed by Greg Doran

Reviewing printed scripts is an interesting exercise since plays are meant to be seen on stage. They are not really meant to be read as one would read a novel. However, three of this year’s GG-nominated plays are all good reads. Each playwright explores questions central to Canadian experience. Two of the plays approach their questions from a historical perspective, and two of them are adaptations of previous works. Together, they show the current diversity and strength of Canadian drama.

By adapting Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Robert Chafe set himself a considerable task. Johnston’s novel is a sprawling work and highly regarded. However, Chafe wisely focuses on the novel’s chief strength: its characters. Joey Smallwood and Sheilagh Fielding are natural characters for the stage. Chafe captures the conflicting attitudes and emotions of the main characters. While he surrounds them with an assortment of colourful other characters, it is their play.

Chafe frames the play through small scenes with Fielding, and these serve as a chorus to provide exposition and fill in some of the story’s gaps. Given the size of Johnston’s novel, these scenes provide a dramaturgical way to overcome some of the problems inherent in adapting a work of fiction in which more time can be spent fleshing out characters and providing backstory. The play primarily focuses on the political life of Smallwood, and starts with a meeting with Sir Richard Squires, the leader of the Liberal opposition and the former Prime Minister of Newfoundland. In this scene, Chafe establishes Smallwood’s character clearly as a man with conflicting ideals; more importantly, it sets him up as a man who desperately wants to be remembered.

The other strengths of Chafe’s adaptation lie in his reliance on stage techniques to compress the action of the play. For example, the scene when Smallwood and Daniel Prowse compose letters to discredit Fielding is shared with Fielding’s responses to show the passage of time in an effective manner. Elsewhere in the play, Chafe relies on sound effects and simple blocking notes to move the action of the play along.

Finally, Chafe must be commended for writing a three-act play with ten characters. It is rare to see or read a contemporary Canadian play that is so large in both cast and length. Robert Chafe’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is both a successful adaption and an excellent script, worthy of future productions.

Like Chafe’s play, Michael Healey’s 1979 also deals with a moment in Canadian political history. However, Healey is focused on the short-lived PC government of Joe Clark, whom Healey depicts in a very favourable light. Relying on projections and a three-person cast, two of whom portray multiple characters, 1979 serves as an exploration of what happened to the Progressive Conservative party.

1979 can be seen as the third part of Healey’s political trilogy, which includes Plan B and Proud. Where those two works are not wholly successful, 1979 returns to the formula that Healey employed in The Drawer Boy: he bases the play in a historical moment with enough space around the edges to embroider it with his wit and insight. The highlight of this technique is a scene between Clark and a young staffer named Steve. While one of the projections acknowledges the historical inaccuracy of the interaction between the two, it highlights the strength of Healey’s abilities as a playwright.

While the anger behind Proud brings no real insight into former Prime Minister Harper, the young Steve in 1979 suggests exactly how the PC party lost its way. Steve expresses his unvarnished political views, prompting Clark to start looking for a closet big enough in which to hang Steve’s corpse. While the play is ostensibly about the fall of Clark’s government, it ends up saying more about the fall of the PC party, which Healey bookends with a scene about the hanging of Clark’s official portrait that Harper did not attend.

Like The Drawer Boy, Healey uses the fall of Clark’s government as a leaping-off point to explore larger issues. Healey prevents 1979 from being a political treatise with his wit, dialogue, and ability to take a lesson from Canada’s past.

While the first two plays have looked to the past, Hiro Kanagawa’s Indian Arm looks to the future of Canada. The play is an adaptation of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, which Kanagawa has brought to Canada’s West Coast. Kanagawa is fairly faithful in his adaptation, taking names and the basic plot of a couple who loses a son. However, the play falters because of the revisions made by Kanagawa.

Specifically, the play’s greatest weakness is its Indigenous themes and characters. The play reads like an adaptation that has tried to “indigenize” Ibsen’s original without fully embracing the issues. The character of Borghejm is never fully fleshed out, and the land rights issue is glossed over and used to drive the tension between the two main characters, which is where Kanagawa really shines as a playwright. In the failed idealism of Alfred and the fading youth of Rita, Kanagawa portrays boomers who have lost their place in the world and are trying to navigate this new terrain. Despite not fully exploring the issues it hints at, such as land rights and Canada’s relationship with First Nations communities, the play does succeed in its depiction of a generation looking for its place in Canada’s new reality.

Taken together, the three plays highlight the strength and diversity of contemporary Canadian drama. All three have enjoyed successful initial runs, and one hopes that these published scripts will encourage other theatres to stage these works which deserve future productions.

This review “Canada on Stage” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 131-132.

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