Monday, November 29, 2010


Photos, Top to Bottom: Jan Wood as The Mother in The Life Inside; Elizabeth Duncan as The Eldest Sister, Similkameen O'Rourke as The Youngest Sister and Michaela Holmes as The Middle Sister in The Life Inside (Photos by David Cooper)

1. The Life Inside is one of the biggest shows in the Belfry's history, with a cast of 19, and has taken over three years in its creation. How does the production live up to this kind of anticipation?

I felt very mixed in my response to this show. On the one hand, I admired the quality of the production, the terrific company of actors, featuring a number of local Victoria actors, the musical aspects of the show which were woven into the piece quite seamlessly and supported the storytelling throughout, and the design elements with a lovely painted set and almost note-perfect late 19th century costuming. But, on the other hand, I did feel like there was an awful lot going on up on the small stage of the Belfry and a lot of bodies…perhaps more than might reasonably have been needed in order to tell what is in essence a very small story. So I left the theatre after this quite short 75 minute show with a sense of frustration that a number of actors whose work I admire were constrained in their artistry by the relatively minor roles relegated to them, although I could clearly see a fine ensemble working to the utmost of their professional abilities to tell this sad little story.

2. Director James Fagan Tait has made a name for himself in Vancouver for other literary adaptations, in collaboration with musician Joelsya Pankanea, such as Crime and Punishment and Old Goriot. This time he tackles a short play by Maurice Maeterlinck. Adaptations are only as good as their sources...what do you think of this one?

It is this source material that for me leads to most of the problems I felt with The Life Inside, adapted from Belgian writer (and winner of the 1911 Nobel prize for literature) Maurice Maeterlinck’s short play, most likely intended to be a puppet play, called Interior. Maeterlinck was a somber fellow who took his art very seriously and he was not very interested in many of the elements of theatre that we take for granted. His desire was for theatre to address the existential question, to portray a solitary human struggling for meaning in his life against all the forces of fate. So in The Life Inside we see two men standing outside the window of a village home at twilight, watching the family inside sitting beside the fire, while they delay the inevitable job they are there to carry out; to deliver the terrible news that one of the family’s children has died that day. And that alone comprises almost all of the action in this play, with the exception of a few flashbacks, all of which is told in dramatic dialogue (mostly between the Old Man and the Young Stranger who has found the body of the child), mime, a bit of puppetry and a talking/singing chorus. Now, just take a moment to compare the amount of dramatic potential in this story, which consists of an hour and ten minutes of waiting for the Old Man to knock on the front door and deliver his news, with the dramatic arc of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Balzac’s Old Goriot. The pace of the show is intentionally very, very measured and controlled, with use of slow motion and repetition to reinforce the sense that we are swirling around and around a small moment in time. To misquote an author even superior to those just mentioned, I am left feeling that The Life Inside has a lot of sound and not much fury signifying…not that much.

3. We know about the 'slow food' movement...could this be the beginning of a 'slow theatre' movement, that we should adjust our expectations for fast and slick entertainment and give over to experiences that are more meditative?

I’m sure there will be some who consider The Life Inside to be totally their cup of tea. I can see that if you are of a certain temperament and really give yourself over to this slow and measured production by surrendering to its rhythm, you might find it to be quite beautiful, even (at moments) profound. But for those who expect the theatre to do more than take 75 minutes and nearly 20 actor-musicians to explore a moment-before-something-actually-happens, those of us who happen to like drama that is not static in nature (which Maeterlinck felt was needed in theatre) or that reduces excellent actors to little more than puppets (another Maeterlinck-ian desire) are well-advised to know what to expect here. I happen to like theatre that gives actors something to do and I couldn’t help feeling annoyed that there were enough people onstage to give a rousing production of a Shakespeare, or a Greek tragedy, rather than the minimalist story told here. I began to wonder what it would look like as a puppet play, in fact, and also how it would work with a much smaller cast of actors, musicians and puppeteers. The family we peer at through their living room window for much of the show are silent, their actions remarked on for their quotidian quality that we know will be shattered into pieces when they hear the bad news. Why not make them puppets, thus heightening the sense of alienated voyeurism as we watch them, as if they are in another world and we hold their fate in our hands...literally? If Tait had lifted the show to a higher level of theatricality, if he had experimented more adventurously with multiple ways to tell this story, such as more use of puppetry, symbolic movement and meta-theatricality, this might have been a show that succeeded more than the less than successful effort I saw.

4. Were there any standout performances for you in this very large cast?

The largest role in the show is Richard Newman’s The Old Man and he does a lovely job portraying what little dramatic tension the play holds. His naturally deep voice lends gravitas to the proceedings. I admired UVic’s Jan Wood’s and Theatre Inconnu’s Clayton Jevne’s work as the silent parents for their commitment and deep focus. Rebecca Haas has a beautiful voice which we didn’t hear enough of, as do many others in the ensemble. Elizabeth Duncan plays the drowned child with great sensitivity in her movement and shows a remarkable level of control for one so young. There is lots to admire in this show in terms of its polish, what’s missing for me is the dramatic engine that should move this pretty picture, with its large population, into new territory rather than sit and spin prettily, and a tad preciously, in one place.


Anonymous said...

Personally, I was bored the first half of the play then somewhere along there found it had grabbed me. Perhaps it is a "slow theatre" moment. I agree there is not a lot to the play, the message could probably be summed up on twitter, but there is something about revisiting it over and over that becomes affecting, if you let it. Then again, I enjoy Phillip Glass, so perhaps this IS my cup of tea. I would see the play again, and this is the first Belfry play I have ever felt that way about.

Anonymous said...

Saw it last night and actually started to giggle involuntarily at some of the preposterous dialogue. After the five first painfully slow "set-up" minutes it degenerated into vapid mawkishness that was so bad it actually became entertaining-in the same way that watching a truly BAD movie can be fun. This play is MONUMENTALY AWFUL.
Think "Springtime for Hitler"--and enjoy....

Lisa Desprez said...

Just saw this show at the Belfry. 5 minutes in I couldn't get the thought, "This is stupid" out of my head. By the end of the play I was angry that I'd been made to sit through this without an intermission when I could have made my escape. I found the whole experience one tedious, pretentious and tunefully boring piece of theatre. The actors did their best with what looked to be minimal direction at times. I felt sorry for them actually, that they still had umpteen performances to get through before they could get back to their lives. The worst Belfry production I've ever seen I'm afraid. But thank God I know that 99% of their offerings are first-rate, so I'll just pretend this one didn't happen.