Comment: As You Like It: A Radical Retelling by Cliff Cardinal

by Lynn on January 31, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person a Crow’s Theatre production at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, Ottawa, Ont. Played until January 29, 2023.

Writer and creator, Cliff Cardinal

Lighting by Logan Cracknell

Cast: Cliff Cardinal.

(Perhaps subtle input by Chris Abraham alone for this go-round, who tweaked the original production with Rouvan Silogix in Toronto).

Background. A version of this show opened at Crow’s Theatre in 2021 and was called: “William Shakespeare’s As You Like It—a radical retelling by Cliff Cardinal.”

If one delved into the website of Crow’s they would see the additional title of “The Land Acknowledgement.” The running time was 90 minutes according to the website.

Cliff Cardinal, dressed in black pants, a black t-shirt underneath which was an orange t-shirt (It was Truth and Reconciliation Day) and a black windbreaker, came out from behind the red curtain on stage and began by saying: “My name is Cliff Cardinal and this is my Land Acknowledgement.”

He was charming, smiling, impish, and angry. He was angry at what was happening to Mother Earth, because of pollution, or oil spills and all manner of ills. He hated land acknowledgements no matter who gave them. He had harsh words for the Catholic Church, the rich, (saying they didn’t work hard; a person who picked strawberries worked hard). He went on and on in a measured, theatrical way.  Where was As You Like It?  At about the 45 minute mark of this performance of what turned out to be a one hour show, Cliff Cardinal addressed that very question—where was As You Like It? He said innocently that there was none. He pulled back the curtain to show there was no scenery or even a hint of As You Like It a radical re-telling or otherwise. It was a trick. Cliff Cardinal as a trickster. And we were urged at the end of the show not to give away the trick.

In my review

 I felt Cliff Cardinal was giving the audience the finger. I said so in the review. All hell broke loose as a result. Lots of invective to me, (racist, irrelevant, worse) usually from people who didn’t see the show or read the review properly, or misinterpreted it or whatever; some positive comment; some discussion but lots of angry comment at a review that told what I was looking at. I did not play into the trick and the urging of ‘don’t tell what the ruse is.’ I said at the end of the review of the land acknowledgement: “as for As You Like It—I didn’t.”  Fascinating how many of my scribbling colleagues played into it. “As You Like It like you’ve never seen it!” Oh, PULLLLLLLeeeeeeeeeez. The result is that I got more hits on my blog because of that review than I have ever received for any other review. People wrote or called me and said they would not see the show because of the review. I insisted they go. They had to see it for themselves, they could not take my opinion as theirs. They had to see it. One of the mysteries of theatre criticism it seems is that I actually want people to go to the theatre and decide for themselves especially if my review is less than positive. Those folks went as I urged. They all loved it. I could not be more delighted. Another mystery of theatre criticism, we don’t have to agree. We have to be open for discussion. The show was held over twice; the first announcement was made on opening night, before any review; the second holdover was announced soon after the few reviews appeared. I was the notable negative one. Forgive the arrogance, but I am taking full credit for the second hold-over of the show because of the clamor of my review. Another mystery of theatre reviews? They get people to go to the theatre. At least mine seem to do that.

I saw that The Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa was programming the show. Now it was called: As You Like It: a radical retelling. There was no mention on the GCTC website of The Land Acknowledgement. It was still marketed as a radical retelling of As You Like It. Interestingly, Mirvish Productions has programmed something called The Land Acknowledgement or As You Like It. I’m assuming it’s ‘the same show’ only without the trick marketing. I was intrigued. I decided to drive to Ottawa, to GCTC, one Sunday,  to see the show again, to see what I missed.

The Production. The GCTC lobby is fitted out with pastoral pictures that look like they take place in a forest. A character looks like he is a Joker of sorts, playing on that vision of As You Like It.  As I sit in my seat waiting for curtain time, I hear the sounds of birds tweeting and the lilting recorded voice of Ed McCurdy singing a variety of folk songs. It’s all in aid of setting us up for As You Like It.

(I ask the young man beside me why he’s come to this show. He says that he’s studying As You Like It in school and he’s reading the play and is interested in what Cliff Cardinal has to say. The young man rarely goes to the theatre. I ask the woman next to him—he doesn’t know her—why she’s come. She says that she’s Indigenous and she wants “to see him (Cliff Cardinal) smash this play” (presumably a play of the colonizers). I don’t say a word of information about the show to either of them beforehand, and we go our separate ways after, so I don’t ask what they thought.)

The lights dim. Cliff Cardinal comes out—black pants, shoes, t-shirt, jacket, no orange t-shirt under the black t-shirt. I wait for him to say, “My name is Cliff Cardinal and this is my land acknowledgement.” He doesn’t say it. I wait for him to follow that with: “I’m angry.” Nope. He talks about the land on which GCTC is situated in vague terms, like every other land acknowledgement. He then says that he hates land acknowledgements. He hates them said by ‘settlers.’ He hates them said by Indigenous people. He has cutting words for the ‘woke,’ for those professing to be ‘allies,’ for the rich, for the destructive Catholic Church, pedophile priests, nasty nuns, lazy, care-less teachers, anything phony. He does have respect for hard-working strawberry pickers.  

He gently chides the Ottawa audience to keep up and see how what he is saying connects to the land. The land has rivers and streams polluted by industry. There are approximately 7,000 children buried in the land in unmarked graves on the property of former residential schools run by the Catholic Church. There are thousands of Indigenous women and girls missing from the land.

Cliff Cardinal’s piercing laser gaze firmly pins you to the seat, squirming. He’s not flicking his middle digit. It’s much subtler than that. He is an equal opportunity skewerer. He will make everybody squirm with his quiet, devastating truths. He follows every barb with an impish, ‘disarming’ smile, leaving you questioning every assumption you may have had about anything to do with Indigenous culture, colonialism, land acknowledgements and what you think might be true.

He has completely rethought his show, turned it inside out and upside down. He has expanded it, refocused his attention to every aspect of it and clarified various connections. He still has the trick of revealing there is no As You Like It, except as a play on words and he still asks the audience to keep the ruse and not tell. I don’t have such an obligation to the theatre company or the playwright. Revealing the trick doesn’t diminish the importance of this show.   

This is a land acknowledgement like you have never heard before. The result is bracing, brutal and brilliant.

I want every single person who saw William Shakespeare’s As You Like It—a radical retelling by Cliff Cardinal to see the show again in the revised version, as The Land Acknowledgement or As You Like It when it plays the CAA Theatre in March, presented by Mirvish Productions. And if you never saw it before, for whatever reason, see it! The change in the title accurately reveals what this show is about. It needs to be seen, heard, reflected upon, pondered and considered.

Plays at the CAA Theatre March 10-April 2

Running Time: 90 minutes.

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