Thursday, July 30, 2015

Thought provoking, revealing THE DIVINE, is compelling at The Shaw

“I have my own soul.  My own spark of divide fire.” (G. B. Shaw)

As related in the program notes for “The Devine,” now in production at the Shaw Festival, “In the beginning of the 20th century the Catholic Church . . . occupied a predominant space in Quebec society.  More than the government, more than the business world, the church organized Quebec society, determined its outlook on the world and fed its imagination.”

That control of Quebec extended into every aspect of the culture…the arts, education, financial system, and social service institutions.  The conservative church, and therefore its clergy, were all powerful. 

Into this atmosphere came Sarah Bernhardt, noted as the most famous actress the world had ever known. Bernhardt became so famous that she was nicknamed, “The Divine Sarah.”

Her acting style was a natural approach in which the actor does not demonstrate passions, but internalizes them.  This form of performance evolved into what is known today as “the method.”

Though records vary as to the total veracity of the complete account, when Bernhardt, on a Canadian tour, came to Quebec for a three-day run in December, 1905, she was denied permission by the church to perform. 

The reasons for the decision may been that she was considered a Jew and the church was extremely anti-Semitic.  Though she was the daughter of a French Jewess, Sarah was Baptized and attended Catholic school.  In spite of this, she was still considered a Jew, because of the Jewish belief that a child is Jewish if the mother is Jewish.

Banning of the productions could have been due the choice of plays.  One of the scheduled shows, “Adrienne Lecouvreur,” was a French tragedy, which praises adulterous love and ridicules a man of the cloth for going to Parisian salons, direct affronts on values of the church.

Another reason for the censorship could have been that the run included a Sunday Christmas performance, which was against church regulations. 

Still another reason for the rejection might have been that the divine Sarah was noted as having had a child out of wedlock. 

As for the Shaw production of “The Divine:  A Play For Sarah Bernhardt,” Michel Marc Bouchard wrote the script under a commission of the Shaw Festival, where it is getting its world premiere.  On opening night, Bouchard logged a first.  He is the first playwright to have ever watched one of his own plays premiered on a Festival stage.

The story centers on two young men studying to become priests.  Michaud, the son of the province’s Minister of Finance, is a theatre lover and is excited about the coming visit of The Divine Sarah.  Talbot, who has a deep secret, arrives at the seminary on the day of Bernhardt’s arrival.  He and Michaud are given the task of delivering a letter to the actress informing her of the church’s dictum that she cannot perform in the city.  Following their presentation to Ms. Bernhardt, they each are thrust into different directions as they deal with a series of revelations.

The play not only tells of the difficulty of Bernhardt’s attempt to perform, but also has a modern twist by adding  subplots that deal with child labor, dangerous industrial working conditions, pedophilia, and homosexuality among the clergy.

A powerful speech by Bernhardt previews the climax of the play when she defiantly speaks about, among other things, the marginalizing of women.

Everything about the Shaw production is superb.  The script is well constructed.  The directing by Jackie  Maxwell keeps the action flowing, the characterizations are clear, and the mood correct. 

All of the acting is top notch.  Wade Bogert-O’Brian gives a sensitive, focused and well-textured portrayal as Talbot, the newest priest-in-training.  Ben Sanders makes fine transitions as Michaud, another seminarian, who goes through a series of edifying experiences.

Martin Happer creates a Brother Casgrain who is both compelling and disgusting.  Ric Reid is properly despicable as the shoe factory owner.  Kyle Orzech is totally believable as Talbot’s young brother who is forced to work in the shoe factory under horrendous conditions.  Mary Haney creates a realistic Mrs. Talbot, who gives up her health and existence to try for a better life for her children.

Fiona Reid does Sarah Bernhardt proud by not portraying the divine one, but by becoming her.  This is a well-conceived and effective multi curtain-call deserving portrayal. 

Capsule judgement: “The Divine” is a well-constructed and compelling play that gets a first rate production.  The cast is universally strong, the technical aspects well-conceived, the pacing attention grabbing and holding, which adds up to a must see, standing ovation, theatrical experience.  

What: “The Divine”
Where: Royal George Theatre,  Shaw Festival
When:  July 5-October 11 , 2015
For tickets or information:   1-800-5111-Shaw or