Review: THE JUST

by Lynn on March 14, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

By Albert Camus
Translated by Bobby Theodore
Directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell
Set and Lighting by Ken MacKenzie
Costumes by Shannon Lea Doyle
Sound by Debashis Sinha
Cast: Raquel Duffy
Peter Fernandes
Katherine Gauthier
Diego Matamoros
Gregory Prest
Brenan Wall

The Just is densely philosophical, musing on the moral and ethical questions of revolution for a righteous and just cause.

The Story. The Just is Albert Camus’s (French writer/philosopher) take on the events of the assassination of the Russian Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich in 1905 in Moscow. The play was first produced in Paris in 1949. No doubt the Nazi occupation of Paris during WWII influenced Camus in his writing of The Just (which is often translated as The Just Assassins).

The five revolutionaries in the play plan to kill the Grand Duke to end the tyranny of oppression on the Russian people. It’s suggested some of the five seem to come from privilege so the irony is interesting. Yanek is supposed to throw the bomb into the carriage carrying the Grand Duke to the theatre, but he weakens when he sees two young children in the carriage with the Duke. Dora loves Yanek and actually built the bomb. Boris is the leader. Stepan is a single-minded, emotionless revolutionary hardened by prison. Voinov realizes he’s not cut out for revolution and decides to work in the propaganda wing.

The Production. Ken MacKenzie has designed a set of a simple rectangular room where the revolutionaries meet. Metal rods form the outline of the room. Two long window frames are suspended in air, side by side, at one end of the room. A door is at the other end of the room. The audience sits on either side of the set.

Because the group’s work is secret they have a code of bell rings to indicate one of them, and not the police, has arrived at the door. Whoever is in the room hears the first ring, freezes waiting, hears the other three rings, then moves quickly to get the door and usher them in. There is a sense of heightened tension because they all know their plan is dangerous. There is also a sense of idealistic enthusiasm at what they think they will accomplish when they kill the Grand Duke.

Dora and Boris go to the window to see the Grand Duke’s carriage roll by; then wait for the sound of the bomb (that Yanek will throw); don’t hear it; assume the worse; again more tension; then Yanek races in, distraught that he couldn’t throw the bomb because of the children. Plan B goes into effect, again with the same heightened tension.

Frank Cox-O’Connell has directed and staged his cast with thoughtful efficiency. He has realized that sense of the gut-twisting tension of the play. At almost all times the conversation between characters is calm but tight-jawed. They know that they must all be in the plan together or it will fail. They must depend on each other to carry off the plan, and at times their trust is questionable. Yanek does seem to be a lot of idealistic talk with little sense of reality. They have to depend on him to do the most dangerous part of the plan—throw the bomb.

However as accomplished as Cox-O’Connell’s direction is, there are directorial flourishes that seem more like over-emphasized grandstanding rather than being helpful to the production: The two window frames suspended in space come crashing down for effect at the end of Act I after Yanek fails the first time to throw the bomb, but vows to try again; a square jail cell in Act II is created when four heavy chains drop suspended from the flies with a bang, and then at the end of the scene the chains completely crash in a heap to the stage. The director seems to be laying on the symbolism with a trowel.

As Yanek, the revolutionary with so much to lose, Gregory Prest is angst-ridden, passionate, and so captures the character, he’s like a fire blazing in the wind. Raquel Duffy as Dora, the woman who loves him, is a voice of calm reason until her emotions get the better of her. Duffy gives a powerful performance of a woman who runs out of options.

Brendan Wall makes Stepan into a cold-eyed, focused, totally unsentimental ‘terrorist.’ He has been hardened by prison and there is not a shred of compassion in him. He is dangerous and compelling.

Comment. The play is fascinating. The characters are deeply committed, sometimes conflicted, afraid of the consequences, and human.

Is it murder if it’s for a just cause? Is there anything greater than the Revolution? Is killing children unacceptable in the quest for freedom for the people? Is there a place for love and hate in the cause? Is this terrorism or revolution? The Just asks all these questions. The play certainly has echoes in various instances of revolt, terrorism and murder in the name of a cause, in modern times.

I’m reminded of The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, a wonderful play that looked at both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In one instance, a Palestinian woman became a suicide bomber because so many males in her family were killed in the fighting and she wanted revenge. This had echoes in The Just.

Translator Bobby Theodore seems on a roll. He not only translated The Just, he also translated the play You Will Remember Me now at Tarragon Theatre. His translation of The Just captures both the human essence of the characters, their inner conflicts as well as their philosophical idealism.

The Just is rarely done, so bravo to Soulpepper for producing this. It certainly has echoes that inform what is happening in various places today. In spite of some reservations, I think seeing The Just is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

Produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Opened: March 10, 2016.
Closes: March 26, 2016.
Cast: 6; 4 men, 2 women.
Running Time: 2 hours.

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1 Bobby Theodore March 15, 2016 at 12:39 pm

Hi Lynn,

Thanks for posting this fabulous review!
To answer your question, there’s no mention of “estate” in the original French. I guess it’s an embellishment in the translation you read. I used the word carriage to denote Yanek’s class since, as you know, most of these revolutionaries were upper-class. And Stepan picks up on that in a later attack on Yanek.