Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Review: (Winnipeg) Gone With the Wind

Meaghan Moloney and Miche Braden (photo: Bruce Monk)

by Edgar Governo

In the programme  accompanying the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's world première adaptation of Gone with the Wind, playwright Niki Landau discusses the process of asking herself why such an adaptation of the novel by Margaret Mitchell should be done. She concludes that the universal theme of survival in the original story continues to resonate with audiences around the world, calling out for a new adaptation that speaks to today's struggles and inequities, but I still find myself looking for a satisfactory answer to Landau's original question.

Gone with the Wind must contend with the enormous shadow cast by nothing less than the most popular movie of all time

Even more so than A Few Good Men earlier in the RMTC season, Gone with the Wind must contend with the enormous shadow cast by nothing less than the most popular movie of all time—the classic 1939 film adaptation starring Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. Tackling the same material takes a lot of gumption (to use Director Steven Schipper's term from his thoughts about the production on this site), and a different take on that material should offer some fresh perspective in order to justify its existence.

What we get instead is a script that makes many of the same choices the film does with respect to the original novel: the same key scenes, the same removal of Scarlett's first two children from the narrative, right down to the same intermission point after Scarlett's declaration that she'll "never go hungry again." Although this is to a certain extent an inevitable consequence of two adaptations that are both faithful to the source material, the main effect of these parallels is that where I should've been appreciating a well-mounted play, I often only saw a pale echo of scenes depicted on a much more epic scale onscreen.

That might be unfair to this (or any) stage version, but the people involved must surely have been conscious of this when they decided on the project. No theatre could match the scale in a cinematic adaptation of a story with such an epic backdrop and such a famous precedent, and in depicting the burning of Atlanta (to use one example), a series of buggy turns and roving spotlights on a stage can never measure up to the wall of fire Rhett and Scarlett ride past on film.

Those differences which do filter through are mostly in performance and tone. Bethany Jillard manages to find a take on Scarlett O'Hara that keeps the character's charm while steering away from Vivien Leigh's smoldering Southern belle; while Tom McCamus portrays a darker, more mercenary version of Rhett Butler than Clark Gable's carefree rogue. Most of the other characters get short shrift despite the three-hour running time—particularly brothel madam Belle Watling (Kate Besworth), who is almost completely absent. This seems like a strange choice in light of Landau's stated priorities, since Belle's method of coping with the American Civil War raging around her and the Reconstruction that follows while maintaining her independence offers an interesting parallel and counterpoint to Scarlett's own methods that would benefit from a modern point of view.

The play also has a somewhat more nuanced take on race relations and the legacy of slavery in the Old South, though little is done with this theme. I wasn't expecting or hoping for a deeply revisionist take like Alice Randall's controversial novel The Wind Done Gone, but it was interesting to see Mammy (Miche Braden) address her status with Scarlett more directly and (in a surprising change) choose to leave as a free woman before Scarlett's daughter by Rhett is born. By the same token, however, I regretted the absence of Rhett's statement in the film version that Mammy was one of the few people in the world whose respect he wished he had.

This adaptation needs a much firmer voice of its own to make sure I give a damn as opposed to a fiddle-dee-dee, but it is a brand-new version of a very well-known story and there is always time for further revision. After all, tomorrow is another day.

Gone with the Wind runs to February 2.

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