Sunday, August 21, 2011

the play's the thing

 "Never trust a man who hates dogs" (Gustav, in Heroes)

“The plays the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king . . .” (Shakespeare’s Hamlet)
Of course Shakespeare, the iconic bard, would see in a stage play the power to move even a king to question his conscience; his vocation revolved around those peculiar events where actors assume the personality of a character in a story and strut and bellow their hour on the stage, acting out parables for the enlightenment and/or entertainment of a crowd who, for the most part, just don’t get it. So he wrote comic relief into his plays, humorous—often bawdy—bits to appease the groundlings, the uneducated poor who could stand on the ground below the boxes for the admission of one penny.  
               Heroes, too, has its humorous and bawdy bits. Tom Stoppard collaborated with French playwright, Gerald Sibleyras, to produce this English version of the latter’s popular play about a few days on the terrace of a retirement home in France. Three surviving veterans of WW I are facing old age—as are all of us—and the terrace has become their private nation, and when it’s threatened, they comically revert to military strategies to defend it. Cantankerous and quarrelsome throughout, they are nevertheless bound by the strictures of a past when they were heroes in an heroic cause.
               More people stayed away from Heroes than attended it, obviously. Of those that did attend, some said they didn’t get it, some felt it was fraught with so much subtle, nuanced meaning that they had to see it twice. A few said they didn’t get the gestures at the end, and one or two implied that it was a bit too corny to be enjoyed by them. For the bottom-liner in us at the Station Arts Centre, the fact that we were sold out, turning people away for the last half of the run, spoke loudly about the play’s impact.
               It’s a rare drama indeed that plays to audiences who come away unanimous. Neither can you base your entire outlook on one parable (Jesus told many).
               Reverting to the bard, I recall Hamlet’s instructions to the actors about to present the conscience-catching play before the royal household:
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure (Ham: III, ii, 17ff).
I’m not sure how many patrons saw their virtues and scorns reflected in Heroes, nor whether it mirrored the age and body of the times for them as it ought. As for me, I loved it from the first time I read it to the last time I watched Philippe, Henri and Gustav united in their longing for the freedom of the geese, heading south to their mating ground.
Oh to be young again!

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