Review: S–/W–

by Lynn on March 5, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

l-r Kim Nelson, Deborah Drakeford (photo: Yuri Dojc)

At the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, Toronto, Ont.

Adapted and directed by Adam Seelig
From the Ontario Provincial Police Transcripts of the interview of Detective Jim Smyth with Colonel Russell Williams and his connection to crimes (rape, murder, breaking and entering) in the Belleville, Ottawa area.
Set and costumes by Jackie Chau
Lighting by Laird Macdonald
Sound by Tyler Emond
Cast: Deborah Drakeford
Kim Nelson
Drums by Lynette Gillis

Devastating, gripping compelling theatre acted and directed beautifully. What theatre is for—to inform, instruct and to hold a mirror up to show us who and what we are, good and bad.

The Story. On February 7, 2010, Detective Jim Smyth of the Ontario Provincial Police interviewed Colonel Russell Williams about his involvement in multiple crimes including two rape-murders, two other rapes, breaking and entering that occurred in the Belleville and Ottawa areas. The interview lasted about four and a half hours. Williams’ confession and details about the crimes lasted several more hours. For the purposes of the theatre, Adam Seelig, the director of the piece has adapted the transcripts into a 90 minute verbatim production. The words, including the stammers, unintelligible words and pauses, are all included.

The Production. Jackie Chau’s set is impressive. In front of the back wall is a drum set for Lynette Gillis who will add drum riffs at strategic points in the production. In front of that is a mound of earth perhaps suggesting a grave. The walls of the set are painted in such a way as to create a sense of perspective. A section of mirrored glass is on either wall. There are two utility chairs on either side of the set. The script is on either chair (and I believe on a stand at the back for Lynette Gillis). A pair of military boots are neatly placed downstage along with a military hat and a folded military jacket. There are two standing microphones on either side of the stage.

When the production begins Lynette Gillis sits behind her drums. Deborah Drakeford and Kim Nelson enter and give us the background. Yes, women will be playing the parts of Jim Smyth and Colonel Russell Williams. When the performance begins it becomes clear that both actresses will also be playing both parts at one time or another in the performance. Their body language is clear when each is playing Smyth or Williams.

Drakeford holds up the spiral-bound script indicating the official seal of the Ontario Provincial Police at the top of the page. This confirms the actual verbatim text we are about to hear. When there are components of the text that the police did not want anyone to read or hear that section is blacked out on the page, redacted. Those redacted parts are indicated in the performance by Lynette Gillis who drums during those sections. If the redacted section is short, a musical cue is played. Initially the drumming for a redacted section is rhythmic. One is almost tempted to tap one’s toe to the rhythm. But as the production progresses and redacted parts become longer, the drumming is aggressive, cacophonous, not as rhythmic but very precise in suggesting anger and aggression. It’s as if the drumming is projecting the audiences’ feelings perhaps. That drumming becomes another character; the stuff not said.

While the actresses hold the scripts for the most part, this is not a strictly read performance. The work has been memorized except in a few cases. The interrogation begins with Deborah Drakeford playing Smyth and Kim Nelson playing Williams. There are pleasantries, an offer of coffee and Smyth commenting that he would treat Williams with respect and expected that the treatment would be returned. Nelson sits in the chair, legs spread like a ‘typical guy.’ Her replies are short, unemotional and almost always given without hesitation. There is confidence here, but not arrogance. There is no attitude. Drakeford quietly walks around Williams’ chair asking the questions, full of curiosity, interest. When the information the OPP has that puts Williams at the site of one of the crimes is slowly revealed, Nelson replies without fear but her eyes reveal a bit of concern.

The sections describing heinous crimes are read simultaneously by both actresses in as cool a manner as can be. The words do the talking and communicating without imposing emotion.

Director Adam Seelig has directed this with sensitivity and restraint. The staging captures the meticulous detail in Smyth’s careful interrogation of Williams—slowly pacing behind him when he was questioning Williams. Williams in turn replying as an accomplished military man, meticulous in his planning as well. It’s a cat and mouse game by two accomplished players. Seelig brings all that out while being mindful of the unsettling details of the story.

In the end, both actresses walk upstage; acknowledge their drumming colleague; turn to the audience, put their hands over their hearts and leave to total silence. I can’t recall such total silence at performance as my audience for this one. Not a cough, not a rustle of a program, not a fidget in the seat. Total silence. And there was no applause when the lights came up. Shattering.

Comment. The production started out entitled: Smyth/Williams and close to the first performance the title was changed to S–/W– with the rest of the names of Smyth Williams whited out. Whatever it’s called, it’s a compelling, chilling, unsettling piece of theatre about heinous crimes to women done by a man.

From the statement in the program: “… we urgently feel that, as citizens and artists, it is our responsibility to bear witness to these atrocities, never allowing them to be forgotten, and identifying them as part of a nation-wide epidemic of sexual assaults targeting women and girls. With S–/W—we are confronting the attitudes and norms that enable such violence. “

The intention is noble and important. By using only the words of the interrogation and confession we get some sense of how a decorated and accomplished man such as Russell Williams could do such horrible crimes. We get an equally good idea of the meticulous planning for the interrogation that Detective Smyth used to catch Williams and made him confess.

But the choice of doing this show has been met with angry protest on Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media. A woman who was a childhood friend of one of the murdered women was interviewed on CBC radio saying she felt the victims were being exploited by this production and that she didn’t think it was art. She had never actually seen the production but was voicing her negative opinion of it nonetheless.

On opening night some protesters were invited into the theatre lobby (it was cold outside and the house management of Theatre Passe Muraille are kind) to hand out a sheet of explanation for their concerns about the play. This was peaceful too.

The sheet of explanation though well intentioned in respecting the memories of the dead women and those others Williams abused, believes that the play is being disrespectful to Williams’ victims. It is not. I’ve actually seen the play. The play is doing what it intends to do: “…confronting the attitudes and norms that enable violence.”

The sheet chastises One Little Goat for not asking for consent of the victims and their families to use the words from the trial for the play. The words used in the play are in the public domain. I read the details of the case in the newspapers and the information was more harrowing, if it’s to be believed, than in the play.

Obviously this is a very sensitive subject—a play wants to illuminate the harrowing details of a recent sensational case of rape, murder and other crimes, in order to bring attention to the crisis women and girls experience every day. You can’t condemn a play unless you’ve actually seen the play or read what’s included in it.

S–/W—is a shattering, unsettling, vital, important piece of theatre done with respect and sensitivity and it should be seen.

One Little Goat presents:

Opened: March 3, 2017.
Closed: March 12, 2017.
Cast: 3 women
Running Time: 90 minutes

Tickets: 416-504-7529

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Ronald Weihs March 18, 2017 at 11:09 am

Hi Lynn,
I’m really sorry that I missed this play. Your thoughtful review gives me a strong impression of what it is I missed. Thank you. This sort of theatre based on real documents has interested me for a long time. Good for Adam Seelig!

I’m also really sorry that I haven’t been following your blog. I will from now on.