Review: 1939

by Lynn on September 15, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Studio Theater, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. Plays until Oct. 29,

Written by Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan

Directed by Jani Lauzon

Set by Joanna Yu

Costumes by Asa Benally

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Composer and sound designer, Wayne Kelso

Cast: Richard Comeau

Sarah Dodd

Jacklyn Francis

Wahsonti:io Kirby

Kathleen MacLean

Mike Shara

Tara Sky

John Wamsley

A gently pointed play in which Indigenous voices give Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well an Indigenous interpretation. Terrific production.

The Story. It’s 1939 in an Anglican residential school in northern Ontario. A royal visit from George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth is anticipated and the students are being primed to present a production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Their fussy teacher Miss Sian Ap Dafyyd will direct them. Father Callum Williams will play the King of France.

As the students prepare and struggle with the British accent (of course they have to do the British accent according to Miss Ap Dafyyd), they realize that the story is really an Indigenous story and is about them and their own trials and tribulations. Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well is an orphan and has inherited her late father’s knowledge of medicine and is carrying on his traditions and knowledge. The student playing Helena is certain she is Mohawk. The student playing Parolles is certain that this character (Spanish in Shakespeare) is actually Métis. The student playing Bertram is also Indigenous. The students are committed to their interpretation even though there is opposition to the idea from Miss Ap Dafyyd.

Then the press gets wind of the production and that it will be presented as ‘authentically Canadian,’ and matters go from there.

The Production. We have all been horrified at the discovery of the unmarked graves at various residential schools across the country and the heart wrenching stories of what traumatized survivors endured at the hands of the teachers and clergy at those schools.

In 1939 co-writers Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan have taken a subtler way of dealing with what these Indigenous students and their parents etc. endured without sacrificing the power of the story.  The message is clear and resounding without being hard-hitting.     

Joanna Yu has created an intriguing, compelling set. We are in a class room with chairs on their sides on the floor. A large blackboard with “1939” written on it in chalk, stands on the stage floor and leans up against the balcony of the theatre. That is one large blackboard. Along the sides of the space, on either side of the staircases going up to the balcony level, are other blackboards.

During 1939, students write in chalk on those side blackboard areas, sometimes pleading letters (“Mamma, did you get my letter?”), sometimes just a word like “home”. As soon as the message is written and the student leaves the space, either Miss Ap Dafyyd (Sarah Dodd) or Father Callum Williams (Mike Shara) comes along and rubs out the message with a brush. It’s not done with anger or frustration. It’s just a calmly matter of fact cleaning of a blackboard. The messages are of longing, yearning and homesickness. Some of the students have been there for several years and have not been home.

At the beginning of the play a student is asked who he is and he automatically gives his number and just as quickly corrects himself and gives his name. Giving his number so automatically is a subtle ‘gut-punch’ to those who hear it. Every effort was made to remove their Indigenous language, customs and traditions and make them blend in as “Canadian.”

Every effort was made to break up siblings, but somehow Joseph Summers (Richard Comeau) and his sister Beth (Tara Sky) were there in that school and they just never told anyone they were siblings and it never came out. It was also forbidden that the boys and girls should mingle except in the class room.

We learn that if an Indigenous woman marries a white man she loses her ‘Indian’ status and is removed from the reserve. We learn from one student his Indigenous mother married a white man who later deserted her when she was removed from the reserve.  She prevailed on her own and was determined that her children would have an education.

These revelations are revealed carefully over the course of 1939, as the students rehearse and learn about All’s Well That Ends Well. Here is a play that takes place in Europe but these students find resonance to their own lives in Northern Ontario.

Miss Ap Dafyyd feels strongly about Shakespeare and how to do the play correctly. She insists that the students use a British accent.  She is Welsh. She is asked if when she did Shakespeare with a British accent, I believe I heard Sarah Dodd as Miss Ap Dafyyd say with a bit of irritation, “Of course not.” The irony hangs in the air. Dodd plays Miss Ap Dafyyd with conviction, an attention to detail and more a harried concern about Shakespeare than what the students are secretly feeling. Ap Dafyyd is not a mean, cruel woman. She just seems out of place in that school and frustrated as the students are as well.  

Co-writers Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan carefully reveal the developing confidence, resilience and quiet resistance of the students through Shakespeare. Evelyn Rice (Wahsonti:io Kirby) is cast as Helena and is certain she is Mohawk. Helena knows about medicines, as Evelyn does because of her Indigeneity so the connection is appropriate. As Evelyn Rice, Wahsonti:io Kirby brings out all Evelyn’s curiosity, generosity and joy in playing a character so close to herself. Evelyn is easy going, smart and tenacious in all the right ways. She quietly let’s the local newspaper know that the production of All’s Well That Ends Well will be done as ‘authentically Canadian.’ Wonderful. The students find their authentic voice through their parts.

Joseph Summers (Richard Comeau) plays Parolles and is certain he’s Métis. Parolles gives Joseph validation. Richard Comeau plays Joseph with gentle grace. Beth Summers (Tara Sky) is the student you want in your class—certainly as played by Tara Sky–devoted to the subject. Beth loves Shakespeare. She knows the play. She is championed by Miss Ap Dafyyd. Perhaps because of her Beth wants to be a teacher. Father Callum Williams (Mike Shara) is an awkward, ungainly, nervous man in which his nervousness is manifest in flatulence. Not a good thing when your job necessitates you do a lot of public speaking, and playing the King of France in All’s Well That Ends Well doesn’t help matters.

1939 only touches on the war looming in Europe. The bigger issue for co-writers Jani Lauzon and Kaitlyn Riordan is looking at the Indigenous students in this residential school and finding a positive way of illuminating their hope, resolve, tenacity and embrace of a Shakespeare play to speak for them and help them find their true voice. Jani Lauzon has directed the play with a quiet vision and a keen way of establishing relationships. The play has a lot to say that is important to hear. The message is quietly resounding and clear.

Comment. A few years ago, the Shaw Festival programmed a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V (you read that right) interpreted as if it was being performed by a group of soldiers, hunkered down in the trenches during WWI. During the intermission the audience was invited to fill in cards with their memories of war etc. and some would be read during the beginning of the next Act. At the end of the run there was an instillation of sorts in a field near the theatre. The army boots the cast wore as soldiers during Henry V were positioned around the field and in every boot was a card that had been completed during the run of the show, noting a person’s memory of war, etc. One card stayed with me. The handwriting was perfect and elegant, the message was devastating. The writer said that her father enlisted to fight for Canada during WWII, I believe she said her father thought it was his patriotic duty. When he came back safely from fighting for Canada her father learned that because he enlisted, he was stripped of his ‘Indian’ status. Devastating. The writer was Jani Lauzon.

The Stratford Festival presents:

Runs until: Oct. 29, 2022.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. (1 intermission)

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