Monday, March 7, 2011

The Lady in the Van and Influence Reviews - March 7, 2011

Photos, Top to Bottom: Alan Bennett and Maggie Smith in the BBC Radio version of The Lady in the Van; Tony Cain as Alan Bennett 2, Sylvia Rhodes as Miss Shepherd and Roger Carr as Alan Bennett 1 in the Langham Court Theatre production of The Lady in the Van (Credit: David Lowes, Monday Magazine); David Radford as Apollo and Karen Lee Pickett as Athena in Intrepid Theatres' Influence; Elliot Loran as Keats and Paul Terry as Haydon in Influence (Credit (both): Darren Stone, Times-Colonist).

1) The two plays you saw this past week at Langham Court Theatre and Intrepid Theatre had a few things in common…what were they?

Both Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van and Janet Munsil’s Influence at Intrepid Theatre draw on real life characters in their storytelling. Bennett’s play is based on the true story of his relationship with a mentally unstable elderly woman who lived in a decrepit van on his street and he allowed to move her van into his back garden, where she remained for the last 15 years of her life. Munsil’s play is built around the Romantic poet John Keats’ first encounter with the famous Elgin marbles, taken from the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena in Greece, when they were put on display in the British Museum in 1816. What ties these plays together, in my mind, is a playwright’s passionate struggle for seeking truth and creating art out of this perceived ‘truth’. Bennett himself is in his play, twice over, once as the play’s narrator and again as the remembered Bennett who interacted with the crazy old woman he tolerated and supported, despite receiving little by way of thanks in return. And yet, this difficult and cantankerous woman obviously had a significant effect on Bennett, and perhaps even teaches him some important life lessons. Munsil’s passion is for the big questions of Art with a capital “A”: Where does inspiration or genius come from? Why is art important? How does an artist prevent art from consuming his or her life? So these are two plays that are not afraid to tackle some big questions about art and the meaning of a life.

2) Let's focus on Lady in the Van first. How does this play measure up against his more well-known plays such as The History Boys and The Madness of King George?

I would say this is a less successful play overall than Bennett’s bigger hits, but it still has a lot of merit. It was originally produced as a radio play, which explains its general lack of dramatic action, with the central role played by the great Maggie Smith and Bennett playing himself. Bennett later rewrote the piece into a stage play. The central role of Miss Shepherd is a fantastic role for a talented senior actress and longtime Langham Court actor, director and producer Sylvia Rhodes fits the bill here extremely well. Her portrayal of the religiously-deluded, filthy, incontinent and yet somehow dignified tramp Miss Shepherd is truthful, funny and ultimately quite sad. She is the main reason to see this show, which is well-supported by Roger Carr as the narrator Bennett and Tony Cain as the Bennett reliving the time spent with Miss Shepherd, and other cast members in smaller roles. Directors Keith Digby and Cynthia Pronick keep things moving along, although I did find there were some pacing issues and some clumsy exits and entrances and a few line issues that will most likely improve over the course of the run. I was somewhat disappointed with Bill Adams’ sparse set design, as his fully rendered sets at Langham are usually a treat to behold. But there is a surprise visual pay-off in store for audiences around the halfway mark, which brought a round of applause on opening night.

3) Now let's switch gears to Influence? How does the production do in presenting such heady material?

Munsil is one of my favorite contemporary playwrights, as I am always fascinated with the aesthetic and arcane topics that seem to fascinate her. She is interested in the historical workings of art and artists and does a very effective job in this new-ish play (which premiered three years ago in Vancouver) in showing us how the artist’s passion can often be his downfall as well as his glory, with liberal splashes of comedy to lighten the tone throughout. Keats’ mentor, the failed historical painter Benjamin Haydon, shows Keats the remarkable Elgin Marbles for the first time hoping they will spur his apprentice on to greater poetic heights. Elliot Loran as the young Keats and Paul Terry as the maniacally-driven Haydon create a believable relationship and play their roles with clarity and gusto, although Haydon’s endless artistic fervour is a bit wearing on both Keats and the audience alike (much as he was in real life, I am sure!). Yet, we also see the cracks of desperation and grief of an older artist in Haydon who, despite his best efforts, will be largely forgotten by history, and the spark of genius in the young poet that will burn brightly but be snuffed out by tuberculosis all too soon (Keats died at the age of 25). Off-setting this dynamic is a godly visitation by Apollo, Athena and Hephaestus from Mount Olympus. Athena is furious that relics from her temple have been stolen and is seeking revenge. Apollo has descended to protect his new ‘hero’ Keats. Hephaestus, the blacksmith god of industry, comes as Athena’s besmitten bodyguard, but also brings with him a dark foreshadowing of the Industrial Revolution that is soon to arise. Karen Lee Pickett, Ian Case and David Radford do some wonderful work in these juicy and fun roles, but I do feel an audience member who is not familiar with who these Greek gods and goddess are will lose something in trying to sort out their background and actions…perhaps a note in the program here would help, along with some biographical notes on Keats and Haydon. Munsil does reveal who everyone is over the course of her two hour play (which she also directs very well); I am a former English teacher, so I was familiar with both Keats and the Greek pantheon. But I did hear puzzled comments from other audience members during intermission and after the show who were still trying to figure out what was going on. The production is a lovely looking one, with the Metro Theatre transformed into alley style seating on both sides of the stage, so we have an intimate view of the museum gallery where we see three recreated Elgin marbles (no small feat) that form the focus of the set, designed by Munsil, which is also well lit and has an effective sound design.

4) Which of these two shows would you recommend to a listener who can only get to one of them? Or perhaps to something else coming up in town?

Both of these plays take a comic approach to stories that have some quite touching and truthful moments about human nature, relationships and the trials of artmaking. Those who enjoy witty and well-wrought plays will enjoy either of these productions. And there are many more shows coming up this month, an exceptionally busy one in Victoria, with four shows in the Belfry’s Spark Festival premiering over the next two weeks, and the final show of the Phoenix’s season, a much-anticipated new play by Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor. So get out into the spring sunshine (whenever it manages to arrive!) and see some great theatre.

NOTE: Influence continues at the Metro Theatre until March 13th with tickets online at Intrepid Theatre or at 250-590-6291. Next Wednesday's show is Pay What You Can. The Lady in the Van continues at Langham Court until March 19th with tickets at 250-384-2142.

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