by Lynn on August 26, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Michel Marc Bouchard
Directed by Vanessa Porteous
Translated by Linda Gaboriau
Designed by Michael Gianfrancesco
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Composed and sound design by Alexander MacSween
Starring: Graham Abbey
Wayne Best
Kevin Bundy
Patricia Collins
John Kirkpatrick
Claire Lautier
Elliott Loran
Rylan Wilkie
Brigit Wilson
Jenny Young.

A hugely intelligent play about political intrigue and maneuvering in the court of Christina, Queen of Sweden in the seventeenth century. The production is just as provocative and compelling.

The Story. It’s written by the gifted Michel Marc Bouchard, Canadian playwright from Quebec, and translated by the equally gifted Linda Gaboriau. It’s about Christina who was the Queen of Sweden in the mid-Seventeenth Century.

She was a tomboy as a young girl and now as queen is keenly intelligent and wants to educate her citizens whom she refers to as lumberjacks who drink. She invites French philosopher René Descartes to Sweden in the hopes he can educate them to read, think and debate, etc.

There is also the matter of a successor. Many people want to marry Christina. Her cousin Karl Gustav, for example is besotted with her but she finds him a fool. Other men come forward. Christina has no time for any of them. She too busy running the country.

But then she falls in love – with a woman, one of her ladies in waiting, Countess Ebba Sparre. So Christina also wants Descartes to explain love to her and how to excise it from her life so she can move on.

Christina has been stunted emotionally because of her unhappy childhood. Her beloved father died when she was young. Her mother, Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg, is still bereft years later. She is also bitter about Christina. Maria Eleonora miscarried several boys and when a pregnancy did come to term and the result was Christina, Maria Eleonora really didn’t want to have anything to do with her. She proved it in a horrible way, we learn late in the play.

Christina was brought up by Chancellor Oxenstierna, a stern but caring man, alongside his preening, self-absorbed son, Johan. Growing up, they were like brother and sister, until it is suggested that Johan might marry her. This is a horrifying notion to Christina, but not to Johan who likes the thought of ruling.

Here is Christina, emotionally stunted, except when it comes to the Countess, thinking she could intellectualize love and excise it from your life, like washing her hair. She is further confused when she finds she can’t explain her emotions and is sick with love for the Countess.

The Production. Designer Michael Gianfrancesco has designed a set that is spare, elegant and stylish. The floor is shiny black. The set pieces are minimal—no jokes, please about Swedish furniture being simple but functional. There is a tableau above the stage of a bunch of stag horns. That seems to be one symbol of this macho play. The colour black sets the sombre tone of the country and Christina’s court.

Gianfrancesco’s billowing, black gowns are sumptuous for the ladies-in-waiting, and almost foppish but manly for the men—breeches, leather boots up to the knee, leather vests, shirts. Christina wears black form-fitting pants, a tapered top and flat-heeled shoes.

Director Vanessa Porteous has a fine eye for detail as she sets up the relationships of characters while also establishing the intrigue of the court. There is always a lady-in-waiting sitting in the shadows, reading, watching, ready to be called. Besides Countess Sparre, there is Duchess Erika Brähe, a kind of narrator, commenting on the goings on in court.

Christina, as played by Jenny Young, makes her first entrance in a fury because her cousin, Karl Gustav, gets carried away and jumped on her to give her a kiss. As a result both of them landed on top of one another in the snow. He hurt her shoulder. She carries on in a fury hurling invective at him. He professes his love for her in a pathetic way, not listening to her insults, but continuing to slobber his love for her.

The aggravation, of having to deal with this puppy of a man and his exhortations of love, bores her. She is aggravated by her thuggish subjects and their lack of intellect and curiosity. She is particularly upset because she is besotted with Countess Sparre and can’t explain it or intellectualize herself out of it. Hence her frequent conversations with René Descartes to explain what she is feeling and why.

Young is forthright, impatient, conflicted, obviously besotted but determined to control her feelings. She spits out Bouchard’s dazzling invective, biting the words and hurling them around the room, landing perfectly on target.

Then we see Countess Sparre and Christina’s reaction to her. While Christina tries to hold on to her emotions, she loses her grip when she is in Countess Sparre’s presence. In these sensual scenes, a large animal skin on which are many pillows, is pulled downstage from upstage. Christina sits on the pillows her knees bent up as she leans back, supported by her arms, gazing up at the Countess. Christina has had a gown made for Sparre. It’s maroon/scarlet, striking when you consider everyone dresses in black. Christine wants Sparre to try it on in front of her.

Young sits still in her pose and gazes as Sparre disrobes. You can sense Christina’s breathlessness in Young’s performance. As Sparre, Claire Lautier is graceful and alluring, not a tease or conniving. She is shy about undressing for this woman, whom she loves in spite of being engaged to a man. The scene is slow, quiet, and intoxicating.

As Christina’s harridan of a mother, Maria Eleonora, Patricia Collins gives an acting lesson in disdain, condescension and imperiousness. She moves downstage in short steps that look like she’s floating, on the arm of an equally disdainful albino man referred to in the program as “The Albino. That should give you an idea.

Collin’s face is pinched with contempt—she is after all seeing her daughter who has summoned her. Collins looks like she could suck your eyes out at 20 paces. The voice is high and weary, weary that she has to deal with her unacceptable daughter.

As Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, Wayne Best has all the power and command of a man versed in the way of political manipulation. He has plans for his son and for Christina, but pulling them off calls for care and delicacy so as not to tip his hand. He is volatile, as well, which makes him even more dangerous.

As Johan, Graham Abbey revels in his macho physique, his strong thighs and flexing pecs. So as to alert everyone of his arrival his boots make a particularly loud sound because of a heavy foot-fall. This is a performance of a man revelling in intense narcissism and it’s wonderful to behold.

As the watchful and quiet Duchess Erika Bräher, Brigit Wilson comments on the goings on. She is both inquisitive and bemused by what is happening at court. This is a woman who is not naïve. She is aware and non-committal for her own protection. It’s wonderful watching Wilson reading a book in the shadows but subtly react to something she’s heard or seen. Lovely work. The cast is fine.

Comment. Michel Marc Bouchard’s dialogue is poetic, lyrical and smart, and so is Linda Gaboriau’s translation. Bouchard’s play is full of intellect, grit and political intrigue, establishing a world that is fascinating and scummy at the same time. The production crackles with intrigue and danger in shadowy corners.

Even though it’s set in the 17th century, all those characters are recognizable today. Christina is surrounded by devilish people who want to thwart her or wed her and how she manoeuvres around them is dazzling to watch. She is such a fascinating character.
She is head and shoulders above most of the people in her court when it comes to brains, curiosity, and accomplishment. She knows several languages and knows how to govern and move her country into the future. How she solves the problem of a successor is inspired. Bouchard writes characters who are multi-dimensional; even from the simplest of courtiers, they are all real. The production beautifully lives up the glitter and promise of the play.

Loved this play and production to bits.

An aside. I was introduced to Michel Marc Bouchard before the show by one of the sponsors. Both held copies of the acting text of the play. “Where can I get one?” I asked the playwright after I checked the small lobby of the theatre for anyone selling it and found none. Bouchard said I could get one at the Festival Theatre. I was going there the next day as it happened.

The next day I do a quick sweep of the large gift shop at the Festival. There were books on Shakespearean cuss words. There were novels and biographies of Queen Christina. I didn’t see any of the play. When I asked, I was told they were sold out. It’s the day after the opening and they are sold out. Sounds popular eh? I asked if they had re-ordered. I was told they would probably re-order the play. They run out of copies of an original play that will do well at the tiny Studio Theatre and the woman at the gift shop for the theatre says they would probably re-order the play. It’s moments like these, and so many others, that I miss the presence and professionalism of the late, lamented TheatreBooks.

Produced by the Stratford Festival

Opened: August 14, 2014
Closes: September 21, 2014
Cast: 10: 7 men, 3 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes approx.

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1 Rosemary Ganley August 28, 2014 at 11:43 am

Thank you for this fine piece Lynn.

I loved it to bits too.
When I read critiques in the Star and Globe of the script I thought these anglophone critics just don’t get the francophone sensibility

You did !