Saturday, June 21, 2014

Edwardian Oddities

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The Charity That Began at Home
By St. John Hankin
2:00, Sunday, June 8, 2014
Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

The Charity That Began at Home is a discomforting Edwardian comedy. Lady Denison (Fiona Reid) has been advised that the best way to be charitable and coax better behaviour from others is by setting a good example. She embraces this notion by inviting a group of undesirable misfits to her country home, in the hope that by enjoying civilized company they may improve their own manners and hence their social prospects. The menagerie of boors and bores shows no signs of reform. So long as they are only boring, they present no imminent danger. That, however, changes.

One of the guests, Hugh Verreker (Martin Harper), is a disgraced army officer who was dismissed over having made a loan to himself from the regiment's cash. He makes a convincing argument about how he intended to pay back the money and had arranged for a loan from his uncle, but the repayment did not arrive before the cash was discovered to be missing. In discussing his case, Margery (Julia Course), Lady Denison's daughter, is told that Verreker might be a scoundrel but that under the influence of good people he could reform. Margery therefore concludes that the best way to reform him would be to marry him. This is when the notion of commitment to charity clashes with practicality.

Even the servant Soames has been engaged to work in the household as an opportunity to give him a second chance in life after having been dismissed from his last position. The outcome is that Soames rapes the maid Anson and leaves her pregnant. When he is confronted, he acknowledges his act and he is entirely unapologetic about it. He adds that he cannot possibly marry Anson because he is already married. The Edwardian audience would have been horrified that he will not give his victim the respectability of marriage, but the modern audience is relieved that the rape victim is not forced to enter a binding relationship with her abuser. It is also uncomfortable to note that Lady Denison is much more concerned that Soames should be given the opportunity to redeem his respectability, rather than ensuring that Anson will be able to lead a respectable life. By the mores of the times, she will not, she is "ruined."

When does selfless goodness stop being a good thing and start to be a clearly foolish endeavour? Does anyone really change? The social concerns may be different nowadays but the notion of world responsibility toward the less fortunate remains a concern. How personally should we take the notion of "charity?" To what extent should we open our hearts and our homes to a person who needs rescuing? It is not an easy question.

Hankin was criticized in his time because he failed to provide "satisfactory" endings to his plays. How can this be a comedy is Margery's heart is broken? Will Lady Denison and Margery continue to pursue this kind of charity? Should they do so? Are they right to flaunt social convention in the name of kindness or is their intention misguided and foolish? Should personal sacrifice extend to marrying someone to redeem them? There remains a wide gap between the romantic ideal and the practical reality, and Hankin's comedy is not as light as it would appear. I consider the fact that he does not provide facile resolution as a strength, rather than a weakness. This play was deeper and more relevant than it would appear at first glance.

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The Sea
By Edward Bond
8:00, Sunday, June 8, 2014
Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

It is 1907. A storm rages at sea. A young man is drowned. The Coast Guard is at arms because invaders may be attacking. The play was originally produced at the Royal Court Theatre on 22 May 1973. The director's notes in the programme refer to Margaret Thatcher, the IRA, Pink Floyd, Monty Python's Plying Circus, and the invasion of the body snatchers. The play looks Edwardian --it is set in Edwardian times-- but it has contemporary concerns.

The opening scene shows the wind machine, property of the East Anglia Theatre Company, on the beach at night. Like Brecht, Bond reminds us that this is a play, not real life (epic theatre convention). As the machine is set in motion, the "storm" rages and the story begins to unfold. A young man's boat overturns and he is killed, either by the storm or possibly by Hatch (Patrick Galligan) the maniacal leader of the Coast Guard who is convinced that aliens from outer space are attempting to land on England's shores. Hatch, the draper, a seller of yard goods, is a bona fide mad hatter. He, in turn, is terrorized by Lady Rafi (Fiona Reid), the town's matriarch, who orders goods and then will not accept them when they arrive. She maintains the social order and runs the local amateur theatre society in which she is the star. Willy (Wade Bogert-O'Brien) survives the shipwreck and must go speak to the deceased's fiancée Rose (Julia Course). Hatch presumes that Willy is an invading aliens and threatens his life. Evens (Peter Millard), the drunken hermit who lives in an abandoned boat on the beach, comforts Willy and tells him that Hatch is harmless.

I felt like I was at sea for most of the first act. I could make no sense of this play until I latched onto the notion that the main characters are all Shakespearean fools. Lady Rafi is the tyrannical fool. Hatch is the mad fool. Evens is the wise fool. Once this became clear, the whole play started to make more sense. In the end each of the fools tells the young people to leave this place: Lady Rafi and Evens tell them to get away for their own good and Hatch tells them to get out. Staying would only lead to madness.

Several elements did not hold together. Hatch the draper was unconvincing in his over the top lunacy. It is hard to see how he could hold down any sort of job at all, much less run a store and serve as the head of the coast guard. The scene in which Lady Rafi is declaiming her lines in the theatre society rehearsal as Orpheus, asking a stalwart Rose as Eurydice to come back from the dead, is a moment of high irony, but not believable. The vocal battle and the tussle over the ashes at the funeral were delightfully uproarious but blatantly silly. There were moments of levity and seriousness, but overall, I am not convinced that this play manages to make enough sense of the madness. Also, the Shaw Festival could use a bit of work on its wigs. The wig lines were visible on every character in both productions and it is disconcerting.

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