Getting to the Roots

Reviewed by Julie Sutherland

Two recent publications showcase some of Canada’s finest theatre practitioners. Michael Springate’s Revolt/Compassion: Six Scripts for Contemporary Performance presents a collection of his plays spanning a quarter century of his career. Three have a conventional structure, being plot and dialogue driven (Dog and Crow; Freeport, Texas; and Kareena). The other three (Historical Bliss; Consolation of Philosophy; and Küt: Shock and Awe) are experimental, drawing on conventions of cinema, Greek tragedy, and the Korean musical storytelling genre P’ansori.

What connects Springate’s diverse scripts are their relentless reconsideration of language and an exploration of language’s power—not always for the worse, but rarely for the better. Even his title—Revolt/Compassion—suggests such mutually exclusive words could be two sides of the same coin, a theme he explores in Consolation of Philosophy. Indeed, that same play examines a related theme that reverberates across his oeuvre: how we hear, understand, and interpret language will determine our worldview. Springate ably interrogates this subject, noting how humans across time and space have been slaves to language’s destructive power and devastating control. In myriad theatrical forms, he demonstrates how reality can be manipulated and truth distorted through language, which is used to shattering effect in both personal and political arenas. Springate also interrogates how collective memory and religion can skew public perception of absolute truth—if such a thing even exists.

A final theme uniting Springate’s plays is the individual quest for freedom. Shrewdly linking this to the dark underbelly of language, Springate promotes the thought-provoking idea that actual freedom is found in the absence of language: in silence. While all six plays are worth approaching on the page, bibliophiles should note that reading them should be a prologue to experiencing them where they will be strongest: on the stage.

In Colours to the Chameleon: Canadian Actors on Shakespeare, Keith Garebian considers what he calls the “national stamp” that leading Canadian actors apply to Shakespeare’s characters in a series of absorbing interviews with some of Canada’s “theatre royalty.” In translating these interviews into fluid, narrative prose (rather than presenting a straightforward Q&A format), Garebian’s gorgeous turns of phrase draw the reader into the actors’ lives and histories as much as into their thoughts about working on Shakespeare. And “working on” is key: Garebian is more interested in practice in this book than he is in theory.

His admiration for the actors he interviewed between 2017 and 2018, including Nancy Palk, Juan Chioran, Chick Reid, Graham Abbey, Moya O’Connell, Tom Rooney, Lucy Peacock and Joseph Ziegler (among others), is everywhere apparent, but he begins on an unrestrained note about “rabid ultra-nationalists” who have “misconceived, misdirected choler.” Readers should try not to be put off lest it drive them to miss the respectful heart of the work thereafter.

Garebian’s interviews illuminate important issues in Shakespeare, including the ongoing lack of female directors of Shakespeare’s plays and the extent to which it is important to uncover Shakespeare’s intention for his characters. He also queries how actors can avoid being locked into a specific interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays rather than being open to new ones. He examines the power of Shakespearean subtext over text, and thought and feeling over word, and he considers the miracle of transmutation—where actor becomes character, and where passion is never manufactured, but organic. He reveals the challenge of escaping the common trap actors fall into of reciting Shakespeare’s stunning poetry without any real sense of the text, subtext, or context; and their tendency toward histrionics and self-indulgence when reciting—not acting—Shakespeare.

Garebian also contemplates the significance of music as part of Shakespeare’s storytelling and the musicality of Shakespeare’s poetry. He interrogates how to tackle problematic plays (e.g., Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew) and, similarly, how to apply feminist readings to shed new light on characters’ actions (e.g., Lady M). He examines how to keep twenty-first century audiences engaged in a language and time so far removed from their own. He also seeks opinions on contemporary trends towards gender-bending, cross-gender, and colour-blind casting. And, he marvels over the tendency, especially in academia but also in professional theatre, to over-intellectualize Shakespeare, musing about how doing so hinders rather than helps performance. Conversely, he showcases at least one actor (Graham Abbey) who finds academic research helpful.

I am not convinced that Garebian’s interviews unearth the idiosyncrasies that might result in a specifically Canadian Shakespeare (though the topic is raised), but they nevertheless comprise a highly readable, enlightening celebration of some of this country’s top actors.

This review “Getting to the Roots” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Feb. 2020. Web.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.