Dear Matthew Jocelyn (Or, The Soulful Text and The De-Souled Actor)

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harper3Dear Matthew,

I like your taste in plays. I was thrilled to hear that you’d programmed Simon Stephens’s 2008 play Harper Regan, a longtime favourite of mine, at Canadian Stage, the large Toronto theatre company of which you’re the artistic and general director. You’ve also programmed a play by the excellent German Philipp Löhle next season, alongside plays by the excellent Canadian Jordan Tannahill. As this patchy survey of your programming suggests, your curation at Canadian Stage is cosmopolitan and, in my opinion, oriented towards excellence.

In a manner more or less unparalleled by any other local company in the years I’ve been attending theatre in Toronto, you’ve opened a space in this city for a conversation about the substance and form of theatre as it exists beyond the limits of North America and particularly in Europe. You’ve programmed a lot of European work, for one thing, and you’ve enfranchised local directors to approach texts of whatever provenance with a characteristically “continental” attitude.

That attitude may be epitomized in a few maxims that are inevitably reductive but capture the gist. The writer is not the author, in the strict sense, of a stage production. The writer is necessarily radically dispossessed when interpreters take hold of her play and stage it. There is a dramaturgy of all stage elements — scenery, sound design, actors’ performances, etc. — not just a dramaturgy of the text. The spirit of the text may sometimes be best honoured by taking liberties with the letter of the text; if the director has any obligation to the text, that obligation is only to the spirit of the text as he perceives it and not to the author’s intentions. The author’s intentions are radically unknowable. Realism is acceptable as a self-conscious formal strategy but never as a hegemonic default position. Language is unreliable at best and possibly just noise; the most authentic stratum of reality, from which we as bourgeois moderns are liable to be alienated, is sub- or supra-lingustic: gestural, imagistic, physical.

It’s not my interest here to unpack the salty compound of truth and nonsense that those claims amount to. Let it suffice to point out, for these modest Internet purposes, that they rest on doctrinaire postmodern and post-structuralist thinking, developed in Europe after the Second World War, and are vulnerable to all the same challenges as are postmodernism and post-structuralism.

What I mean to do here, instead, is to look at how your production of Harper Regan is served by your interpretive approach.

harper6The play’s premise is simple, on the face of it: a middle-aged woman learns her father is dying, requests permission from her boss to leave work and travel to her father, is denied that permission, and departs anyway, a choice that disrupts the life of her husband and teenaged daughter, whom she gives no warning of her departure. Her journey is full of self-discovery and also, through the characters she meets along the way, discovery of the “state of the nation.” Her family has a traumatic secret that turns out to be what motivates her journey, at least in part, and before the drama concludes the secret will be confronted, however obliquely.

Part of what makes the play remarkable, to my mind, is the poetic intensity and emotional depth with which Stephens invests each scene. In a lesser writer’s hands, the same narrative material would be both melodramatic and banal, and nothing more; in Stephens’s, the narrative is poignant in its melodrama, mysterious in its banalities.

It’s also a bit baggy, I think, prone to digressive, stylish but generalized rants on the decadent state of England and the modern world. These compact arias pose a challenge to a director, since they appear in different characters’ mouths and often in similar ways; one hears the playwright in them more than the character. A director inclined to view the play as psychologically realist would be obliged to justify in psychological, circumstantial terms each character’s holding forth in this way.

The alternative reading, which, during your production’s first scene, is the one I thought you’d chosen, is that the play is essentially non-realist, or best staged in a non-realist way, and the arias or rants are a facet of the play’s non-representational style and don’t need to be justified by characters’ psychology.

Hardee T. Lineham, as the heroine’s boss, pays no worship to any notions of human psychology that are extrinsic to the text of the play itself. He doesn’t try to be realer than the lines are, and the lines (and pauses) in his first scene are both “real” — truthful, moment to moment — and also “not real” — bosses like him are found more often in literature than in life. For this reason, his performance is the most successful of the evening. He makes Stephens’s text theatrical, ominous, forceful. He speaks as if he means what he says. Through an elevated style, he manages to mean what he says in a way he likely couldn’t do if he tried to speak the same words naturalistically. That’s partly because those particular words aren’t all that naturalistic.

His scene partner, Molly Parker as Harper Regan, finds no equivalent to his register. She plays the scene the way she plays each subsequent scene: as psychological realism. This is a choice the script makes room for, in fact — Harper’s language is far more understated than her boss’s. But that choice is undermined by the way the actress (not the character) appears totally uncomfortable, grounded in neither voice nor body. The criticism that Ms. Parker, a gifted film and television actor, lacks stage technique is maybe apt but also slightly misleading. In fact, she doesn’t seem to be attempting an inappropriate filmic naturalism on stage, but rather a non-specific “theatricalism,” full of visible effort. Because the theatricality of her style isn’t derived from the text and doesn’t reveal the text, it isn’t illuminating or “theatrical” in a positive sense; and it also isn’t natural or real.

harper4As the play moves into its more thoroughly domestic scenes, and then into its gently surreal but still psychologically consistent scenes of Harper on her odyssey to see her father, this difficulty infects the whole production. The actors seem not to have been encouraged to find a credible, precise, truthful emotional reality; instead, the operating assumption appears to have been that the play’s lovely poetic vision must be brought out in some sort of “pure” way that transcends petty Stanislavskian psychologizing, which would reduce it. This approach works well in Lineham’s performance, and in Philip Riccio’s turn as a belligerent “chav” or racist barfly; in both cases the play contributes operatic language and the production is blessed with actors who have a high degree of tonal control, a virtue that has perhaps a shadow side. But in most other scenes, the text itself resists the heightened tone the production seems to aim at, and the production doesn’t know what to do about it.

Thus we find the spectacle of several basically very good actors, given a nuanced and emotionally accurate (“deeply felt”) text, obliged to sit around an entirely naturalistic table in entirely naturalistic chairs and speak to each other as no offstage human beings have spoken to each other ever. Perhaps the style remains heightened in this way to remind us that we’re not in Kansas anymore, that this isn’t just “one of those plays” about a troubled family sitting around their kitchen table and studiedly avoiding the naming of their troubles. But the text offers up far too much domestic, naturalistic dialogue — and the physical staging remains, in how it uses bodies in space, also far too traditional — to support the exaggerated performance style. So the style seems merely insincere. And if we’re not in Kansas, that’s only because we’re not anywhere.

Your production has dispensed with British accents for this very British play, replete as it is with British slang and phraseology and place names. Perhaps this was done on the theory that it’s a weird colonial holdover to use the accents of Empire on a Canadian stage, or that it’s easier for local audiences to connect with characters who sound like them. But it seems to me that thought and feeling, as inscribed by a good writer in a dramatic work, are bound to the particular music the words derive from cultural, i.e. regional, specifics. To make actors speak the word “completely,” used in Harper Regan as a peculiarly British intensifier with a peculiarly British emotional depth, in a Canadian accent and therefore in Canadian speech rhythms is to make them speak a different word than the one the author intended — the one the author can very credibly be understood to have intended. (The line I think of is Harper to James, “I thought he was completely beautiful,” though there are many others.) To make an actor exclaim the British thuggish “Oi!” in a Canadian accent is an absurdity that needs no gloss. Better to use Canadian accents than bad British ones, of course. But not by much.

harper2I mention the accent choice — which might be seen, in itself, as petty quibbling on my part — because I find it to be emblematic of a deeper problem. Your production of Harper Regan seems to assume and imply that even in a play as full of rich, detailed characters as this one, stage poetry can exist in a way that isn’t embodied in character, can exist without the emotionally truthful rendering of character. The implication is that stage beauty may exist in this play even when the actors are visibly ill-at-ease and disconnected, when those actors’ behaviour therefore resembles nothing from life.

Yet to separate beauty from character, to make beauty in dramatic art independent of the detailed and persuasive realization of character, is to separate it from the moral, that is, from justice. Perhaps you’d reply that beauty is amoral, that beauty has nothing to do with morality. And maybe that’s true of certain species of beauty: in those forms of art, e.g., that have no discursive content. But civil life, the life of city and state, is inherently concerned with justice and needs speech for that reason, and a culture’s art, taken as a whole, is trivial and weak-minded if it has no deep concern for civil life. This doesn’t imply, to my mind, that every work of art needs to respond to an explicitly or even implicitly political question. But to take an existing work of art, a play script, that has a strong political or moral concern, and to share it with a city in a way that renders that political or moral concern null — I think that’s scandalously wrong.

I can’t say with precision what Harper Regan is about, at least not in the comprehensive manner of your Director’s Note, where you suggest the play is about a woman trying to break her “family’s curse” in the old Greek style — a reading that strikes me as rather imposed on the text than derived from it, and that isn’t particularly legible in the production, to my eye. But I’m pretty convinced the play has something to do with the individual’s desire for moral clarity and innocence in a modern world that feels oppressively and increasingly (or just permanently) short on both. That’s the core of the play that moves me, anyway. If my reading is in the ballpark, the play is deeply political. What can be more political than the individual’s hunger for goodness or innocence in a society that’s perhaps inevitably, to some degree, amoral or corrupt?

harper5If the play is political — and I think all great plays are, even if their political meanings are tacit — then the problem of character can’t be evaded. It’s there or nowhere that the specific beauty and poetry of this play lives, over against the beauty and poetry of art or people or life in general. Cf. the string section crescendo and lighting flourish in your production’s final moments, an enlisting of beauty as such, pulchritudo ex machina, in a non-specific way — or so it struck me, despite how it had been prepared by the gradual softening of the sound design from abrasive metal at the play’s start to that delicate conclusion. Your production does have elements and moments of real beauty, I thought: the production’s totally exposed Bluma Appel stage is a striking sight, and the start of the play’s final scene finds a lovely stillness, an enigmatic naturalness. But to compel an actor as gifted as Vivien Endicott-Douglas to stray as far from her innate honesty as she does in the second of her two roles in your production, a young nurse played in such a forced, cartoonish style that the text’s meanings are incoherent, is to ensure that the play on stage isn’t really Harper Regan.

And maybe that’d be okay, if Harper Regan weren’t such a strong play and what were onstage in its place were persuasive. Instead, this production seems to be caught in a fraught limbo: bound by a genuine respect for Stephens’s words on the one hand, but committed to undermining them by its stylistic ideology on the other. And it does feel like there’s an ideology at work, since only ideology could persuade a visionary leader, as clearly you are, to ignore what any roomful of unconditioned adults (i.e. any audience that hasn’t convinced themselves they have to like the show because it’s Art and they paid top dollar for their tickets) must notice: that most of the people on stage aren’t behaving or speaking like people in the world ever do, and that most of their behaviour and speech make neither emotional nor rational sense.

Perhaps that standard for judging the merits of theatre is naïve, a “naïve realism.” Perhaps I’ll be faulted for judging at all, since a theatre that isn’t concerned with justice — which may or may not describe yours accurately — has no internal need for criticism.

If I judge, then, perhaps I shall myself be judged and found wanting, but I say this: I judge not just as a lover of Stephens’s play, but also as a believer in your project at Canadian Stage. My criticisms of the continental “Regietheater” attitude are significant but not total. I think there’s a lot for North American theatre artists to learn from the European model, particularly from visionary individual artists like Ivo Van Hove, as distinct from tropes and polemics that have themselves hardened into reaction. The continental insistence on bridging the world of the play and the world of the audience is healthy, especially when deep consideration is given to each world and the interrelations between the two.

Your Canadian Stage is one of the only places in Toronto, or in the whole of the country, where Canadian artists and audiences can witness that kind of bridging — at its best, an insistence on the political dimension of any performance, which happens at this time and in this place, in the context of our polis. I offer my thanks for that service to this country and all of us who care about art in it.

Yours,

Daniel

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5 thoughts on “Dear Matthew Jocelyn (Or, The Soulful Text and The De-Souled Actor)

  1. This is quite an impressive critique! I don’t agree with everything you have said (and that’s OK–theatre criticism is a pretty darn subjective endeavour, after all, isn’t it?), but I applaud you for applying this much thought to your review. And I do share several of your concerns about the play. Above all, I wholeheartedly agree that “most of the people on stage aren’t behaving or speaking like people in the world ever do, and that most of their behaviour and speech make neither emotional nor rational sense.” I also couldn’t agree more that the language of this play, its setting and repeated references to specific geographical locations, and the political significance that flows from those factors, among others, cannot simply be ignored, which they seem to have been, in light of the directorial decision to have everyone use their local Canadian dialect. It just doesn’t work. As a result, watching this production was an extremely discouraging and dissatisfying experience for me.

  2. This is a fascinating and brilliant response to the production (which, London,UK-based as I am, I haven’t seen, nor will I get to see) and I love the subtlety of your discussion of the play and the directorial response to the text. There is something not-quite-realistic in all of Simon Stephens’s plays, even the most realistic ones and you get right to the heart of that and the demands it makes on his theatre collaborators.
    The accent issue is interesting to me. I appreciate that all languages and accents have their own music but, over here, we’ve recently had a production of Our Town at the Almeida in which all the cast (except the actor playing the Stage Manager) spoke in British accents – a great variety of British accents, as it happens. Now, this is surely about as USA a play as it’s possible to imagine, so, on the face of it, that might have seemed like a weird decision, but it just seemed fine. We heard lines like ‘she just got an awful scare, Mr Morgan. She almost got run over by that hardware-store wagon’ in a British accent. We heard the line and we heard the accent and the two didn’t quite match, but we just kinda got two for the price of one. It worked okay. Our Town is a different play from Harper Regan, but I’m not sure the difference makes it impossible for the same principle to apply. (Of course, hey, I didn’t see the production you’re talking about, so I’m speculating and talking in abstractions, which maybe isn’t right.) But one other thing to say: the line ‘I thought he was completely beautiful’ – that’s not really quite right in British English either. It’s a very Simon Stephens line; an excess of sincerity, a rush of gauche feeling. But ‘completely’ as an intensifier may well be a British English thing, but there are adjectives it can intensify and adjectives or sort of can’t. This is one of those that it can’t; though it’s completely beautiful in the play, of course…
    A wonderful piece though. Generous and precise and profound.

    • Dan,

      Thanks so much for your comment. You and your site were a huge inspiration for mine, so your generosity (and Andrew Haydon’s) sort of knocks the wind out of me. In a nice way.

      I think I agree with you about the accent bit, actually. I think that part of my argument was too generalized. I mean, I still feel that the accent choice was unhelpful in this particular production, and emblematic of larger issues, but I may have been misled a little by my desire to make a synecdoche of it. I don’t feel there’s a universal rule about the issue; I can well imagine a successful production of Our Town in non-American accents. (And that’s not even to open the wormcan of translation.) I guess I just figure that if local accents are to be used in a not-locally-set play, it should be in the name of letting actors live onstage more comfortably in their own skins…and if the production doesn’t permit that, if it radically limits the actors’ freedom and comfort in general, then the accent choice becomes just one more piece of artifice and cause of alienation. As I felt was the case here. But in a different production that same choice could’ve worked, I think.

      Wishing you a completely beautiful day,

      D.

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