Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review of Gormenghast at William Head on Stage - October 31st

Top to Bottom: Kate Rubin as Gertrude, Countess of Groan in WHoS production of Gormenghast; Ingrid Hansen as Fuchsia Groan and JR as Steerpike in same (

1. The 50th production of William Head on Stage's [WHoS] thirty year history is an adaptation of British novelist Mervyn Peake's trilogy Gormenghast. What can you tell us about this novel and its move from book to stage?

Writer Mervyn Peake was also a well-known artist, book illustrator and poet. He suffered a nervous breakdown while serving in WWII, and no doubt the horrors of war, and the Holocaust, are partly behind his rendering of a stagnant and suffocating society portrayed in the Gormenghast trilogy. The watchwords of the inhabitants of this vast and isolated castle, located in a place that is never fully defined, is “No Change”. When young Titus Groan is born as the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, things do begin to change as he grows up to be a young man who rejects the mindless rituals of the castle and longs for freedom beyond the castle walls. His doppelganger in the novels is Steerpike, a kitchen boy with dreams of revolt who rises up through the castle ranks and threatens to take everything away from the Groan family, unless Titus and his family can stop him in time. The trilogy is often called fantasy, but there is not really any magic in the story, and a more correct genre might be gothic, with is grotesque, satirical and even surreal elements. Considered a major literary achievement in post-war British literature, the books have been adapted many times into radio and TV formats, and more recently as a stage adaptation by John Constable, which is the adaptation being used in WHoS’ production.

2. Sounds like a challenging choice for the inmates at William Head to take does director Ian Case do with all of this?

I think this is a very fitting choice for a prison theatre production, especially given its overall theme of Freedom vs. Tradition. The longing of young Titus to break free of the castle that dominates his life is a powerful metaphor when spoken and performed by an inmate. And the changed mantra “No Change” also cannot help but resonate more deeply when performed in the context of a federal correctional institution. That said, it is not an easy story to tell, as it is quite convoluted. John Constable’s adaptation does away with many minor characters and subplots, but nonetheless it is a challenge for both performers and audiences to make sense of this strange tale. Luckily, local director Ian case (who has directed out at William Head in the past, most recently with the successful production of Macbeth) does an excellent job of crafting a production that is effectively cast and performed. Three actresses from Victoria play the female roles (although one brave inmate does play a role in drag!), and the production is strengthened by the confident presence of Kate Rubin as Gertrude, the Countess of Groan and Titus Groan’s mother, Ingrid Hansen as Titus’ older sister Fuchsia and Michelle Chowns as one half of Titus’ twin aunts Clarice and Cora. While none of the inmates are trained actors, which makes hearing every word sometimes an issue, each one of them is clearly deeply invested in their characters and in the story they are telling. This is in itself a major achievement that I am always so impressed to see at William Head on Stage…the clearly very high level of commitment to each production.

3. What was working well in the show for you?

I enjoyed the overall design of the show very much. The set is made up of three grey castle towers, each with a screen on its front side. A ramp goes down from the stage to the ground level, so actors can use the floor level for some of the action of the play. On the screens, overhead gel projections often appear with simple animations that tell us where we are in the castle, or what a character is doing, like unlocking a door, or climbing a wall, or walking down into the castle’s cellars. When an actor is behind these screens, the use of shadows also becomes a very effective element that Case employs creatively throughout. Also, sound effects are made live backstage and these add suitable background elements that work well to evoke the castle’s atmosphere. Finally, the costumes are very well done, and look suitably both aristocratic-shabby and strange...the women’s costumes are especially effective, as are the use of puppets to show how much the Countess Groan loves her menagerie of cats and birds more than her family, at least in the first part of the play. I did find things a bit confusing at the top of Act One, but the plot soon started to make sense as the characters were introduced. The only other problem I encountered was some slow pacing, as often there were a couple of beats or more between one scene and the next that could have been tightened up, or perhaps covered by some transitional music. However, these are minor complaints, and overall I had a very enjoyable night out behind the razor barb-wired fences at William Head.

4. How does the future look for William Head on Stage, given the Harper government's crackdown on crime...will rehabilitative arts programs like this one be at risk?

I am always inspired, as a theatre educator myself, by how meaningful and powerful an experience it is for the inmates who participate in WHoS shows. Their notes in the program clearly state how putting on a play is an opportunity for each of them to step out of their comfort zones, to escape the drudgery of prison life, and to learn valuable lessons about the necessity of cooperation and communication when rehearsing and performing a play. This program is the longest-lived prison theatre program in Canada. I don’t know what the future holds for WHoS, and mostly due to the institution moving from medium to minimum security a few year back, the organizers are only now ably to put on one show a year. But it is clear to me every time I go out to see a WHoS that this is the best kind of rehabilitative experience, and offers a strong alternative to the punitive and retributive policies that we know generally don’t work very well. I hope the administration of William Head and the government continues to support programs like WHoS, for everybody’s sake, not just for the sake of those involved…it says something good about all of us, I think.

NOTE: Gormenghast runs until November 12th at William Head Federal Institution. Tickets are available at or 250-590-6291. No person under 19 years old will be admitted.

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