Two Reviews from out of town: JUDITH: Memories of a Lady Pig Farmer, and Oh What A Lovely War

by Lynn on August 7, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

JUDITH: Memories of a Lady Pig Farmer

At the Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ontario

Based on the novel “Judith” by Aritha Van Herk

Adapted for the stage by Heather Davies

Directed by Jennifer Brewin

Set and costumes by Kelly Wolf

Lighting by Kaitlin Hickey

Sound by Rebecca Everett

Cast: Georgina Beaty

Graham Cuthbertson

Marion Day

Nathan Howe

Tony Munch

Daniel Roberts

A well meaning play that, in spite of good acting, is unable to lift the story of Judith and her devotion to her pigs to a level that is interesting instead of being deadly dull.

The Story.   Judith’s parents were farmers when she was a kid and she helped her father with the chores feeding and tending the pigs. When she grew up, living in the city she worked in an officer and was a secretary/assistant to a man with whom she was having an affair.  He was physically abusive so she left the city and bought a pig farm in the country to try to change her life.  For the most part she is alone on her farm with only the pigs as company. Eventually she is invited for dinner by neighbours, Ed and Mina Stamby and their three strapping sons, one of whom is Jim, who is sweet on Judith.

 The Production and Comment.  A group of musicians (members of the cast playing musical instruments) sing various ditties throughout the show that establish a lilting atmosphere—I think the songs are unnecessary no matter how well they are sung.

Kelly Wolf’s set is of the rustic barn where the pigs are kept. We don’t see them, we hear them grunting, slopping around etc. We imagine the pigs. Judith (a stoical, thoughtful Georgina Beaty) talks to a man who sells her the pigs. She points out the ones she wants. When she has them in their pens at her farm she spends much time looking over a wood barrier to the imaginary pigs.

She carefully pours pails full of water or food into their troughs (we have to imagine the water and the food—cause the pails are empty.) Other times she mimes shoveling after the pigs or spreading clean straw for them.  All this seems so repetitive and endless that I got the book by Aritha Van Herk out of the library to see what Heather Davies found so intriguing.

How does it translate from a book to a stage play? I usually just take the stage play on its own, but Judith: Memories of a Lady Pig Farmer as a play just seems dull and flat to me, no matter how much Heather Davies loved the book and wanted to adapt it to the stage.

It’s Judith doing a lot of looking at the pigs in their pens. So Judith is wistful, pensive, fretful, silent, introspective etc.

Aritha Van Herk’s novel, “JUDITH” is at times poetic, almost as if she wanted to be esoteric when describing Judith’s inner most thoughts. She gives Judith deep interior musings. Van Herk goes into her philosophical, psychological almost spiritual life. Everything is densely described and explained. And she does the same for the pigs.

She gives them an interior life as well, as they observe Judith as she feeds them, wondering about her, her motives, how she is different smelling than the men they have encountered, how her attitudes change as she feeds them etc.

I’m thinking, “excuse me, THEY’RE PIGS!!” Well of course you can’t translate inner thoughts into dialogue in a play unless you have a narrator who explains all this stuff—that doesn’t necessarily work—witness “ORLANDO”  by Sarah Ruhl that Soulpepper did recently.

So while Heather Davies has used the novel’s sprightly dialogue of Judith as she meets her neighbours, the overall affect is that without the inner life the play is rather lifeless.

I’m thinking: “Where is the conflict? Is it between Judith and herself?  Is it between the pigs and each other? Or with Judith?” My head is swimming here trying to make sense of it all.

Can the actors redeem the play? The actors do a really lovely job to lift this as does director Jennifer Brewin. Brewin finds the humour in the piece and it enlivens the production. The stoicism and wry humour of Judith’s neighbours is refreshing

Georgina Beaty is pensive as Judith and you can tell she is hiding layers of emotion as she tends her pigs and is standoffish for the most part, with people.  She bonds beautifully with Mina played with such impish joy by Marion Day.  Mina knows of the constant drudgery of farm life but she also finds the humour and honesty in it.

Nathan Howe plays Jim, who is sweet on Judith. Howe plays him as a bit of a lunkhead, a joker, and yet a kind man. The characters are considerate, generous and open-hearted—except for the abusive boss (a very contained Graham Cuthbertson) . But all that silent watching, sighing, and wistfulness without context is a real challenge.

Produced by the Blyth Festival.

Plays until Aug. 11, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, approx.


Oh What A Lovely War

At the Royal George Theatre, The Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Book by Joan Littlewood, Theatre Workshop and Charles Chilton

Research by Gerry Raffles after a treatment by Ted Allan and others.

Directed by Peter Hinton

Musical Direction by Paul Sportelli

Designed by Teresa Przybylski

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Projections by Howard J. Davis

Cast: David Ball

Ryan Cunningham

James Daly

Kristi Frank

Jeff Irving

Allan Louis

Marla McLean

Kiera Sangster

Jacqueline Thair

Jenny L. Wright

After a rather confusing start with lots of distracting business Peter Hinton’s vision for Oh What a Lovely War became clear, inclusive and chilling.

Some background.  Described as “Joan Littlewood’s Musical Entertainment,” Oh What A Lovely War is initially about the British involvement in  WWI but for this production, the Canadian input factors heavily as well.

The Shaw Festival is commemorating 100 years since the ending of WWI, so three plays about war have been programmed: O’Flaherty V.C., Henry V which opens this week, and Oh What a Lovely War which opened last Wednesday.

Oh What a Lovely War was written by Joan Littlewood, her company Theatre Workshop (in London) and Charles Chilton and was on the stage in London in 1963. Joan Littlewood was a pioneer in the creation of modern theatre. She was a powerful, inventive director and her reputation as a theatre creator preceded her. She was a fighter for the kind of theatre she wanted and imposed a rigor that it be presented with utmost professionalism. It’s a kind of theatre that incorporates Commedia Dell’Arte street theatre, clown, music hall, docudrama and is very movement based.  Oh What A Lovely War is the best example of this.

Littlewood’s influence reached way beyond England. Canada’s own George Luscombe worked with Littlewood in London in the 1950s. When he returned to Canada he started Toronto Workshop  Productions (1959-86) on the site of the present Buddies in Bad Time Theatre

The Story.  Lively (mainly) British war songs and songs of that day (1914 +) are sung that juxtapose news of what is happening at the front. The contrast makes the reality of the war chilling.  And of course the title is full of irony.

The show references WWI as it pertains to Britain but director Peter Hinton has taken Littlewood’s suggestion in her introduction to the play to inject freshness into other productions.  To that end this company has added Canadian stories into the production.

We learn that black men wanted to enlist but they were not allowed because of racism.

Indigenous men did enlist to fight for their country and were accomplished but at the end of the war they were ignored. One was Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwa soldier and accomplished sniper. He made more than 300 kills and was the most decorated indigenous soldier in military history. But at the end of the war he and his fellow indigenous soldiers did not receive a pension or any land as white veterans did. I’m grateful to Hinton and his cast for their research and inclusion of Canadian stories, no matter how uncomfortable.

The Production. A lot is packed onto the small Royal George Theatre stage. Initially the production seems busy with characters entering from all over the theatre, singing patriotic songs.  Up at the back there is a screen on which news reels are projected, in front of it is a bank of upright pianos that are moved around in various formations, and occasionally cut off the screen—annoying and too much going on to see on what to focus.

Allan Louis is an elegantly dressed master of ceremonies who controls the proceedings. As part of the Canadian input Marla McLean informs us of what was going on in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. at the time and in particular how the Royal George Theatre factored into it.

We are told that the tally of the dead will be noted on a device that has flip cards with on number on each card. As the casualties rise, the numbered cards will be flipped. A great idea but the tally is not revised as often as we hear how many died at various battles. I thought this was a missed opportunity to keep that growing number of dead chillingly in our minds.

The production is full of irony with the lively songs working in contrast to the rising tally of casualties and bad news from the front.

There are poignant moments, for example: the truce on Christmas Day, 1914 when soldiers on the British side of the front line and the German’s on the other side sing Christmas hymns to each other and send each other little presents–touching.

Jeff Irving is hilarious as an officer barking orders in an unintelligible way (thick accent, lots of yelling) only to hear/understand him later in the scene when he purposefully becomes intelligible. Later he plays the arrogant, dispassionate Field Marshall Haig who is oblivious to the slaughter of soldiers, mainly Canadians, sending them back into battle. The result of his arrogance makes you take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

In the end, I think Oh What A Lovely War is one of the most gripping, unsettling anti-war ‘entertainments’ in a long time.  The cast is strong—they can sing beautifully and act exquisitely.

 Comment. Peter Hinton is a gifted artist who is bursting with ideas and visions. Quite often they seem to overpower him and you just want to yell “STOP”. But his determination to do right by the material, his rigorous research, his conviction that Canadian stories be included and his bringing it together for a compelling production, won me over in the end.

Presented by the Shaw Festival.

Opened: Aug. 1, 2018.

Closes: Oct. 13, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.


Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.