Review of THE AENEID at Stratford

by Lynn on September 6, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Olivier Kemeid
From the epic poem by Virgil
Translated by Maureen Labonté
Directed by Keira Loughran
Designed by Joanne Yu
Lighting by Ital Erdal
Sound by Debashis Sinha
Cast: Rodrigo Beilfuss
Josue Laboucane
Malakai Magassouba
Tiffany Claire Martin
Mike Nadajewski
Monice Peter
Gareth Potter
Andrew Robinson
Karen Robinson
Lanise Antoine Shelley
Michael Spencer-Davis
Sammer Usmani
Bahareh Yaraghi

A contemporary take on the idea of refugees and immigrants that could be effective if it wasn’t bloated with overwriting and muddy with self-indulgent direction.

Background. The play is a contemporary take on the epic poem The Aeneid by Virgil. In the original Aeneas and his fellow Trojans escape from their home of Troy in search of a new homeland. The Greeks destroyed Troy in the ten year Trojan war. The Trojans now sail to Italy but have all manner of trouble on their way. It’s a complicated, complex epic poem.

The Story. Olivier Kemeid is a French-Canadian playwright and the artistic director of Trois Tristes Tigres, who has taken The Aeneid and created a contemporary re-working of the poem, translated into English by Maureen Labonté.

It is now definitely a refugee/immigrant story, and how resonant is that. The difference is that there is no specific reference to Rome and Greece, thus making it a universal story. Kemeid has kept the original names but applied them to modern times. We get a sense of the constant expulsion of peoples from their homelands by warring armies etc. and their desperation to find safe haven.

There is a wonderful speech delivered with quiet thoughtfulness by Michael Spencer-Davis, of the many and various peoples who have been displaced and forced from their homeland around the world, from Afghans, to Serbians to those across Europe, and Africa for example. Refugees are desperate and wily to find shelter and have to deal with unscrupulous people who offer to help, but at a huge cost. We’ve heard many stories like this before.

But there is an omission and I think it’s huge. I didn’t hear the word ‘Syrians’. I was listening hard. I don’t think I missed it. The Aeneid has been work shopped etc at Stratford since 2008, and not to mention the story of the Syrians that has galvanized this country like no other in recent memory, seems a troubling laps.

In a way that omission makes The Aeneid dated. I am also concerned that the play seems to be bloated with overwriting when a careful, ruthless editing is in order. The play clocks in at 2 and a half hours and I thought there could have been a lot of trimming.

For example, there is a scene in which a couple are vacationing at a swank resort. He jabbers on about how idyllic the place is. He repeats it several times while putting sun screen on his partner’s back. She seems bored by what he is saying and ignores him. He talks of how time is important and jabbers more, wasting time doing it.

A group of refugees approach him wanting food. He says that there is a buffet at the resort and they should try there—the man of course is a thoughtless idiot. The refugees then go to the resort reception and deal with a snooty official who says that there is a buffet but it’s only for guests.

We get it. The people the refugees have to deal with are oblivious to reality. This tells the same story too many times. Cut, condense, tighten. At least a half an hour should be cut from the play.

The Production. I don’t think Keira Loughran’s over fuss, self-indulgent direction helps to clarify scenes. There is usually so much activity with her chorus, either rolling on the floor, flailing in the background, or doing all many of business while scenes are going on, that all that activity pulls focus and distracts our attention. What does it signify that a whole group of characters roll from one area of the stage to another? They crawl up and down Joanne Yu’s unwieldy set when what is needed is a distillation of all this business to serve and clarify the text.

However, I think Gareth Potter as Aeneas has the stature, poise and conviction needed to convince that this is a leader of his people and is determined to lead them to a new homeland.

Comment. I think the play needs another pass to tighten the story. I also would like to see a more seasoned director have a go at it.

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

From: Aug. 2, 2016.
To: Sept. 25, 2016.
Cast: 14; 9 men, 5 women.
Running Time: 2 hours approx.

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