Somewhat akin to the opening of The Tempest, violin-rich Ladies in Lavender and Morris Panych’s fanciful take on Moby Dick (cross-references below), The Sea first washes into consciousness with a howling gale where life is lost and reputations either sullied or, eventually, made.
The first-ever production of an Edward Bond play at the Shaw Festival is a triumph for director Eda Holmes and the ensemble; what few reservations there are have to do with the writing—notably the balance.
Bond’s eight scenes are quite literally a riot of textures, tones and techniques. At his best, there is a mastery of farce that few playwrights have ever achieved. Unforgettable—even as the tears of hilarity are wiped away—are the duelling divas during a cliff-top funeral service as the feuding women try desperately to out embellish one another in song: “Onward Christian Soldiers” indeed! It’s difficult to imagine a better pairing than Fiona Reid’s marvellously acerbic depiction of hamlet matriarch (just ask her, she’ll tell you) Louise Rafi duking it out with Patty Jamieson’s visage that speaks volumes in her extraordinary depiction of Jessica Tilehouse. The icing on the vocal hysterics comes from the master of timing and straight man smarts thanks to Neil Barclay’s spot-on portrayal of the Vicar.
Runner up in the yuks department features a covey of women, led of course by Rafi (“none of them can act,” she offers with customary haughtiness), as the window dressing for her upcoming charity performance of the classic descent by Orpheus into the Underworld. No coincidence here as the notion of hell on earth is never far off Bond’s radar, merriment or not.
Manic humour is also very much in evidence thanks almost entirely to Hatch-the-draper’s truly hysterical fear of the planet being invaded by aliens (whether extra-terrestrial or homegrown is artfully woven into the mix by Bond as more is known about the characters). Patrick Galligan offers a fine madness indeed whether begging She Who Refuses to Pay for a business-ending order of yards-upon-yards of blue fabric for new curtains in the village’s only manor (not surprisingly, given this plot point and the close quarters of the Court House Theatre, designer Camellia Koo brings the ocean’s furious tide into consciousness by taking sail-sized, gleaming fabric and giving it rollicking wings as the waves flood the eye and drown out the frequent, bomb blasts that lurk ominously in John Gzowski’s soundscape, foreshadowing world events just seven years hence) or brutally stabbing to a second death the lost-at-sea suitor whose ill-fated desire to be with his beloved sooner than later denies both of any chance at happiness on this earth.
Playing Rose Jones the luckless damsel, Julia Course exudes innocence, despair and resignation as required, yet Bond hits a couple of false notes by turning the distraught woman into a dutiful servant just at the height of her emotional tsunami. As Willy Carson, the sole survivor of the opening wreck (with a curious echo of Life of Pi—cross-reference below), Wade Bogert-O’Brien is entirely convincing in his determination to take his dead friend’s place, yet full-fledged happy endings are not in Bond’s arsenal.
Rounding out the principals, Peter Millard does yeoman’s service in his gritty, philosophic take on the reclusive, rum-loving Evens. Yet his largest contribution—a virtual “rat-catcher” soliloquy—and the preceding dissertation by Rafi on the need for bullying, take the wind out of the Holmes’ expertly crafted dramatic momentum. It’s as if Bond doesn’t trust himself to put his themes and agenda into the minds of his audience by showing rather than telling them just what he thinks about the human condition then (1907 is the year in question) and now (the play was first staged in 1973).
Those few cautions aside, this production is another sterling example of just how cohesive the Shaw’s company has become. JWR