Saturday, May 25, 2013

Theatre For Thought, May 25, 2013

joel fishbane

Another critic / artist kerfuffle spilled onto the Internet last week after Canadian director / writer Morris Panych attacked the review of the play, Our Betters, which Panych directed for the Shaw fest. The Globe and Mail’s J. Kelly Nestruck did not care for the material, dubbing it, among other things, “mildly misogynistic”. Nestruck’s review argued that Our Betters was a dated play that hadn’t stood the test of time.

Panych, using the forum on the Globe and Mail’s comment page, replied with a response worthy of inclusion in the Canadian tax code – which is to say it used a lot of words to convey a simple point. Panych believes that Nestruck’s displeasure came from viewing Our Betters, written in 1915, through a 21st century lens.  “You talk about the play being written in 1915 during trench warfare, but how we failed to acknowledge this in the play because it's 2013,” wrote Panych. “What an existential mind-bender! You, a mere boy in pants, have sorted through the space-time continuum to discover the central flaw – not only in this production, but in all productions, past, present, and to come - that plays are performed 'after' they are written.”

in between the lines of Panych’s wordy response is the beating heart of a problem that plagues festivals like Stratford and Shaw

As is often the case, the replies to Panych’s comment (both online and on Nestruck’s Facebook page), talked more about Panych’s tone than his content. My publisher, in his weekly column, went so far as to call Panych’s remarks “a wee bit (very) bitchy.” Style has trumped substance: we’re talking about the way Panych replied rather than the content of the reply itself. Which is a shame because, in between the lines of Panych’s wordy response is the beating heart of a problem that plagues festivals like Stratford and Shaw, whose stock in trade are revivals of plays written decades ago.

The challenge in a nutshell: are old plays relevant? Last week, in my review for a Toronto revival of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, I touched on this very problem – I already found the show dated, despite only being written fifteen years ago. Not long after his review of Our Betters, Nestruck also reported on an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People by Thomas Ostermeier, which recently appeared at the Festival TransAmérique in Montreal. Ironically, Ostermeier isn’t a big fan of Ibsen, but he finds the plays easy to adapt for his own purposes.

“Would classical theatre in Canada be more exciting – and have more of an international reputation – if more of our directors took this nonchalant attitude to great dramatic writers like Ibsen, or Bernard Shaw, or Anton Chekhov?” asks Nestruck. "Might our reverence to dead playwrights’ words actually be hurting their plays?” (Sidebar: Panych had another lengthy response to this article as well)

Art is a product of a very specific moment in time and, as Panych says, plays are performed long after that moment has passed. It’s for this reason that satire and parody rarely stand the test of time. Many comedies struggle to remain humorous and those that have lasted often have sex and romance at their core, two topics which remain universal despite the passing of the years. Nestruck’s question bears examination, especially as it touches on the question of molding older plays to appeal to the modern mind.

Most people travel to the theatre for one reason only: they want to be entertained.

Let’s face it: John and Jane Q. Public aren’t all that interested in relics from theatre history. Most people travel to the theatre for one reason only: they want to be entertained. Audience members today are most likely not all that interested in the social history of England during the first World War. They want to see engaging characters with interesting problems who embark on entertaining ways to come to a solution (which is, boiled down, the essence of every story ever told). 

In resurrecting plays, most theatre creators struggle to find something relevant in the subject matter. In his review of Our Betters, Nestruck remarks that period pieces are “partly about now – or, at least, how we got to now.” The trouble is that “relevance” is as subjective as art itself. Some artists clearly find The Merchant of Venice to be relevant; I think it deserves to be buried and forgotten. There is no absolute which is one of the more exciting things about revivals. Artists resurrect old plays and foist them on us and hope that we see what they see: prophecy, allegory, or just a long-lost gem.

For purely practical reasons, there will never be an easy solution. New shows are dangerous. They are untried and untrue. Old plays come ready to perform, with famous authors who are long dead and don’t demand royalties. They will always be attractive properties to theatre companies hoping to save a dollar; likewise, they will be equally attractive to artists hoping to put their particular stamp on a piece of the theatrical canon. Meanwhile audiences and critics will forever be left with the unenviable task of deciding whether or not the whole thing was worth the effort – and the ticket price.  

Our Betters by Somerset Maugham continues at the Shaw Festival until October 27. For tickets visit

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