At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Upstairs
Written by Florence Gibson MacDonald
Directed by Ken Gass
Set by Shawn Kerwin
Costumes by Michael Giangrancesco
Lighting by Cameron David
Original Music and Sound Design by Wayne Kelso
Starring: Matthew Edison
An exquisite production in every way: writing, direction, acting and design.
The Story. With <strong>How Do I Love Thee? playwright Florence Gibson MacDonald has written an homage to poetry and the love affair and marriage of Robert Browning (1812-1889) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861).
Elizabeth had been sickly as a child and became a recluse as she grew up, writing her poems at home in her room. She saw practically no one except occasionally her cousin John Kenyon. Her fame as a poet grew. Robert, of course a poet in his own right, admired her work and wrote to tell her. She replied to his letter. What followed over a year or so, was a torrent of letters between the two of them full of wit, elegant language, poetry and love between kindred spirits. All this before they even met.
Robert pressed her to meet him. She couldn’t possibly. When Robert learned that his friend John Kenyon was Elizabeth’s cousin, he pleaded with him to arrange an introduction. When Elizabeth and Robert did meet, love blossomed further. They married in 1848. Her father was livid and disinherited her as he did any of his children who married. Robert took her to Italy to see if the climate could help her delicate nature. They lived there for the rest of their lives.
Elizabeth wrote prodigiously. She was tended to by her loyal maid, Wilson. Robert eventually learned that that meant dolling out the morphine, laudanum and ether that Elizabeth needed to get through the day. Apparently when she was a sickly young child, Elizabeth’s father got her hooked on the stuff because he thought it would keep her calm.
If Elizabeth and Robert argued at all it was over Elizabeth’s dependence on drugs. She felt she needed them to be able to write. Robert, on the other hand, didn’t write at all (at least in the play). He seemed to be eclipsed by his writing-machine of a wife. Still they remained together till the end of her life.
The Production. Three large crème-coloured structures in Shawn Kerwin’s set suggest Italy. Two look like marble monuments and the third looks like a twisted, ancient tree. The structures look like they are made of stiff paper, but the impression is still Italy. There is a writing table stage left and a chaise stage right. Behind the chaise is a swing suspended from the ceiling. Occasionally Elizabeth will swing on it or stand on the seat making a point. At the back, behind the structures are chairs on which the actors sit and watch if they are not in a scene, and in the middle of the back wall is Elizabeth’s dressing table with a chair and mirror.
Michael Gianfrancesco’s costumes are appropriately simple and elegant—black pants, hose, boots, trim black shirt and frock coat for Robert and a simple frock for Elizabeth. Wilson wears a billowing maid’s dress and Kenyan wears a well cut coat and trousers.
At the heart of the production are the scintillating performances of Irene Poole as Elizabeth and Matthew Edison as Robert. It’s not just chemistry between two gifted actors that we are experiencing; it’s more like having champagne for the first time—fizzy, tingly, intoxicating. There is such passion between the two of them, sensuality, plus physical as well as intellectual pleasure. She is headstrong, determined, and lively. He is courtly, sensitive, persuasive and protective.
Director Ken Gass has done a splendid job of realizing the deep throbbing love Elizabeth and Robert have for each other. They are tactile and at times in constant motion as they circle; stroke, touch, caress and tease each other. When Elizabeth is in the grip of a writing frenzy she scribbles lines on a page and then flicks them off the table and onto the floor. It’s a wonderful image of a writer at work. When Robert and Elizabeth write to each other constantly, a shower of letters falls from the ceiling illustrating how many letters passed between them.
As Wilson, Elizabeth’s trusty maid, Nora McLellan is like a protective mother hen. She is suspicious of anyone who might want to do her mistress harm. She talks sparingly and at times is hilarious.
And as John, Elizabeth’s cousin and Robert’s friend, David Schurmann is an elegant man of means who knows the world and tries to help Robert negotiate it.
Comment. Florence Gibson MacDonald has written a moving, eloquent, poetic play full of vibrant lyrical language. It’s hard to tell where a poem begins or ends and the dialogue takes over, it’s all so literate—what would one expect of a play about two of the world’s greatest poets. Each word is like an abundance of chocolate truffles.
If I have a quibble it’s that the play could be a tad shorter. While John certainly travels in literary circles, at times his language is as intricate and vivid as Robert’s and Elizabeth’s. I would think that as tempting as it is to have everybody talking in literary allusion, it’s best to have your two stars shine without interference.
As I said, a quibble. How Do I Love Thee? is exquisite from beginning to end. It’s a gift of a play and a production. See it.
Produced by Canadian Rep Theatre
First performance: January 31, 2015.
I saw it: February 8, 2015
Closes: February 22, 2015
Cast: 4; 2 men, 2 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.