In the Playwright’s Notes, the playwright, Robert Chafe, writes: “The history buff will have no trouble calling me out. But I made my primary task to reflect the spirit and heart of this magnificent book within the often-confining demands of a stage play.” That is exactly what he does. Hard, cold facts about Newfoundland’s first premier Joey Smallwood, and the role he played in bringing the Dominion of Newfoundland into Canada’s confederation can be found in any number of books. Chafe’s adaptation of Wayne Johnston novel Colony of Unrequited Dreams brings much more to the stage than that. It brings back the time, the place and people during a time of great change in Newfoundland.
The play spans over 25 years of hard and turbulent times in Newfoundland, showing that if the period preceding confederation was troubling, the transition from dominion to confederation was anything but smooth. The results (fifty-two per cent of people voted in favour of joining Canada in the 1949 referendum; 48 per cent voted against) split the nation on many levels – from political to personal. What makes the play universal, regardless of its local content, is its focus on human experience rather than on political events.
In the center of the story is the very complex character of Joey Smallwood, played convincingly by Colin Furlong. He starts of as an ambitious young man, ready to humble himself as much as necessary in order to achieve his goal. He stoops, he obeys, and he allows the Liberal party for whom he works to change his views and implicate him in a vicious, ugly correspondence and, in the process, make an enemy out of the woman he still loves. As time brings a new status to the country with the imposition of British rule, he changes and eventually grows into a popular radio host and, finally, into a prominent politician.
On the opposite side of spectrum is journalist Shelagh Fielding, played by Carmen Gran. Fielding is definitely one of the most memorable characters on the stage. From the very first moment when she introduces the story about to unfold, the audience falls in love with her melodic, warm voice and natural intonation. From that moment on, she builds a character of a sarcastic intellectual, humorous villain, warm and loving woman, desperate alcoholic, and courageous professional who is afraid of life. Shelagh is the personification of her beloved country – beautiful, proud, weak, divided. The only disappointing fact about her character is that she is fictional. She is so alive and real on the stage that I still have a hard time accepting that.
There are many beautiful, brilliantly directed scenes in the Colony of Unrequited Dreams. The correspondence war between Shelagh and Joey that stretches throughout the play is one of the best. Desks glide around the stage while the witty, humorous, and caustic words hit the enemy hard. Speech and movements are coordinated, the dynamic is perfect, and the electrified atmosphere of the country is made obvious. Another beautiful scene is the moment when Joey arrives in a remote fishing village and talks to his host about the Union. This conversation, simple and performed superbly, tells the audience everything about the land and its people, including their ignorance of the big world, but also their knowledge of and ability to survive in harsh conditions. Finally, I want to mention the last scene, when the vote is in and the pro confederation option wins. Joey, gathered around the radio with family, wants to celebrate his triumph, but instead of happy cheers, his father starts to shout, accusing him of treason and greedy ambitions. This family scene hits close to home, because even this very moment while reading this review, the same scene goes on in many homes worldwide, and many Canadians can tell you that this experience is not unique to Newfoundland.
Nemeses until the end, Shelagh Fielding and Joey Smallwood part ways. He goes into history as the first premier of confederate Newfoundland, and she leaves the country, as she could not come to terms with its new destiny.
This is a brilliantly performed, directed, adapted show, accompanied with superb music, stage, and light design and excellent dramaturgy.
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams plays at the National Arts Center until February 11.
AC English Theatre Collaboration
Based on the Novel by Wayne Johnston
Bennett Van Barr
Adaptation – Robert Chafe
Director – Jillian Keiley
Composer – Patrick Boyle,
Set Designer – Shawn Kerwin,
Costume Designer – Marie Sharpe,
Lighting Designer – Leigh Ann Vardy,
Dramaturg – Sarah Garton Stanley