Saturday, February 2, 2013

Theatre For Thought, February 2, 2013

joel fishbane

The epigraph on Aphra Behn’s tombstone tells us that her corpse is “proof that wit can never be defence enough against mortality." One might include other attributes which Behn, the first female novelist, might have added to that sentiment. In addition to being witty, Behn was also a bisexual, a spy, a convict, a monarchist and one of the few women to survive entirely on the profits from her writing. Yet aside from cameo appearances in the odd course on theatre history, she is today almost completely forgotten.

“When I started doing research about her,” said playwright / director Paul Van Dyck, “I thought I should just write a play about this woman.” Van Dyck’s interest in Behn was sparked after reading her 1688 novel Oroonoko, a scathing indictment of slavery couched in a love story about an African prince mistakenly put into chains. He has since penned a stage adaptation of the work which will have its world première in Montreal this week.

in writing the play, I struggled to imitate her playwriting style

The adaptation brings both the play’s title character and its author onto centre stage. “A lot of Behn’s original narration is still in the text,” Van Dyck explained as we sat in the basement of the Conseil des Arts de Montreal, where he and the cast were rehearsing the show. “And in writing the play, I struggled to imitate her playwriting style.” It’s an appropriate idea, given that Van Dyck’s version of Oroonoko takes the form of a play within a play: Aphra Behn appears on stage to tell the story of a man who, in her words, “is not like other negroes.” 

“Behn had to be careful with her political commentary,” Van Dyck added. “She saw that something was unjust but she had to be diplomatic in how she presented her ideas.” Diplomacy notwithstanding, Oroonoko was considered revolutionary for its day, appearing at a time when slavery was common worldwide. Van Dyck’s version doesn’t shy away from this topic. “It’s a play that deals with this inexcusable event in human history,” he said. 

Helping him in his exploration is a cast of young Montreal actors, over half of whom are Black. “My concern was whether there would be enough young Black actors to fill all these parts,” Van Dyck laughed. “It turns out there are tons of them. The auditions were inspiring. They made me think this was really possible.” Van Dyck, who is not Black, did a fair amount of research into the world of the play but has found the input of the cast invaluable in helping him understand the problems of race that make Oroonoko as relevant as ever.

Race isn’t the only thing being explored in Van Dyck’s Oroonoko; Behn was an early advocate of women’s rights and her own struggle to survive in a man’s world has parallels with those of her main character. “I’ve juxtaposed the women’s movement with the slave trade,” Van Dyck said. “And there might be opposition to this. But both Aphra Behn and Oroonoko are fighting for equality. Discussing these themes became a demand of the play rather then a demand of the playwright.”

Oroonoko is being produced by Persephone Productions, an independent company known for giving young actors a chance to explore classical texts and themes. Run by Gabrielle Soskin, this is the first time she has handed the reins of a show over to someone else. That Soskin gave up control of the project is a testament to her faith in Van Dyck’s talents. A bit of a theatrical Renaissance man, Van Dyck is a successful actor, writer, director, puppeteer and producer. His one-man adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost received rave reviews during its recent tour to New York and the Atlantic Fringe. Meanwhile, this Spring, Van Dyck will participate in the Director’s Internship at the Shaw Festival. 

Right now, Van Dyck is grateful for the chance to immerse himself fully in the world of Aphra Behn. “I’d like this play to have a life after this production,” he said. “I think it’s a play that more people need to see. It’s a play of consequence.” There’s no doubt Van Dyck is right. The struggle for equality hasn’t exactly become any easier in the last 400 years. Wit, bisexuality and being a spy may not be enough to stave off mortality - but an important idea can live forever. 

Oroonoko written and directed by Paul Van Dyck plays at the MAI in Montreal from February 6 – 17, 2013.

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