The opening night of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams at the National Arts Centre was attended by a who’s who of Newfoundland artists, Canadian politicians and journalists. It was appropriate of course as the play is an adaptation by Robert Chafe of Wayne Johnston’s novel that imagines what early influences might have created a character as enigmatic and colourful as Joseph Smallwood, the last father of Confederation and an enduring symbol of Newfoundland.
A work of fiction that speculates about the heart and soul of a very real character in Canadian history by blending history with invention makes for a compelling evening . It worked on every level. The characters both real and imagined are spellbinding. The dialogue crackles with the wisecracking wit that you find in the best of 40’s cinema. Chafe’s play makes me want to both read Johnston’s novel and discover more about this significant piece of history.
The staging of the play is mesmerizing. Director Jillian Keiley drops the audience smack dab in the middle of a film noir piece. The pinpoint lighting of Leigh Ann Vardy allows the dialogue to pepper the stage. Characters pop up in one spot and then another creating the illusion of watching a series of newsreel clips. We are captured in the tide of the Confederation movement. Brilliant!
Colin Furlong plays Joey Smallwood with the tenacious, pugnacious fortitude of a pit bull without teeth. He can’t really hurt you , but he is relentless, has a strong grip and will wear you down. Carmen Grant as Sheilagh Fielding is a perfect foil as the hard drinking, sardonic gal on the newspaper beat. She can be as cold and hard as the Newfoundland landscape, but just as hauntingly beautiful; so clever it’s infuriating.
Brian Marier as Daniel Prowse is an ever present colleague and adversary to Smallwood and Fielding. Marier is a sharp point of the triangle inserting himself whenever there is a risk of harmony which is “none too frequent”. He is just charming and opportunistic enough to be distasteful and desirable to Fielding’s character.
The rest of the cast as various members of the Smallwood political and family circle are wonderful in portraying that the personal is political. They play their roles in a backdrop of the rocky countryside and the omnipresent snow that highlights the warmth and toughness of a people in a harsh environment.
Set Designer Shawn Kerwin’s set pieces glide in and out with the actors as if they are moving on their own. At times it even feels like the set itself is dancing. In one
memorable scene Smallwood and Fielding battle out their journalistic stances hunched over typewriters, zealously exchanging quips. Their desks swirl around the stage as if caught in a cyclone, tightening up until their desks rest quietly in the eye of the storm. Facing each other, the two silently stare into each others eyes. It is a powerful visual metaphor for the conflict and compromise that was the seed of creation for the union of Newfoundland and Canada.
Another key element that is endemic to the period is the music. Composer Patrick Boyle’s improvised jazz lines authentically provide the background tone to finish a wonderfully balanced, perfect piece of storytelling.
The play’s moving ending is so gripping there was no doubt at all that the audience would rise to their feet in appreciation at the curtain. The ovation was unanimous and well earned. If you want to understand the heart of the movement and the man that brought Newfoundland into Canada you should see this play. You can worry about catching up on the historic details later.
Colin Furlong: Joey Smallwood
Carmen Grant: Sheilagh Fielding
Darryl Hopkins: David Hanrahan/ Gordon Bradley
Willow Kean: Clara Smallwood/ Nurse
Brian Marier: Daniel Prowse
Steve O’Connell: Charlie Smallwood
Jody Richardson: Sir Richard Squires
Paul Rowe: Andrews/ Louis St . Laurent
Charlie Tomlinson: McKenzie King/ Sir John Hope Simpson
Alison Woolridge: Minnie Smallwood/ Lady Squires
Playwright: Robert Chafe
Director: Jillian Keiley
Composer: Patrick Boyle
Set design: Shawn Kerwin
Costume design: Marie Sharpe
Lighting: Leigh Ann Vardy
Sound Designer: Don Ellis
Assistant Director: Courtney Brown
Dramaturg: Sarah Garton Stanley
Stage Manager: Kaih-Yueh Chen
Assistant Stage Manager: Crystal Laffoley
Producer/Production Manager: Patrick Foran
Technical Director/Associate Sound Designer: Brian Kenney
Directing Shadow: Laura Caswell