Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Kanata Theatre’s production of a play called Shatter is that it’s well-intentioned.
But that’s not sufficient to give it a pass.
It may have seemed an attractive notion to mark the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion with a drama that purports to deal with this tragedy. But the people at Kanata Theatre should have first made sure that the script was worth doing.
Dramatist Trina Davies is clearly seeking to bring a note of intimacy to her story and give us a glimpse of ravaged human lives. But in the process, she devalues the impact on Haligonians (and on Canadians) of the largest man-made explosion in human history until the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima 28 years later.
Imaginative use of sound and lighting might have made the devastation more persuasive than it is in this production. After all, we’re dealing with a mythic event in Canadian history. But, of course, director Barbara Kobolak has not been dealt a full hand here. The script keeps tripping her up because it lacks the dramatic language necessary to convey the enormity of what happened. Furthermore, those somewhat amateurish explanatory subtitles above the stage don’t help; instead they threaten to drain the presentation of whatever drama remains.
For the record, the explosion on a French munitions ship on Dec 6, 1917 killed 2000 people and injured another 9000. The blast launched tidal waves and created earthquake effects on the mainland. More than 1600 buildings were destroyed and 9,000 severely damaged. Some 25,000 people were left homeless.
Trina Davies’s play does give a nod to the devastation by giving us a beleaguered family that finds shelter in a box car. But on stage it conveys no sense of the larger tragedy engulfing a proud and historic city. Davies has resorted to the idea of a chorus of locals who keep telling us about it, but it’s so clumsily conceived and these sequences so atrociously performed that it becomes little more than an embarrassment.
The play is so blinkered in its obsessions that it comes close to leaving the impression that the main consequences of this First World War disaster were the blinding of innocent citizens and mob violence against German Canadians because of the false belief that the enemy was behind the explosion. That’s not the whole story. Furthermore, no matter how heartfelt her purpose, this playwright can’t get beyond tissue-thin cliche characterizations.
Dean Flockton has delivered a spare set design functional enough to ensure easy shifting of scenes and props. But there’s no real sense of a wider population beset by devastation. The few human shapes we see moving about the stage might well be the only survivors.
There are visual images that work — among them shrouded figures at a memorial service, and a poignant moment when a young woman seeks for a missing victim amidst a roomful of the dead. And there are cast members who do try to make something of their underwritten roles. Emily Walsh brings a quiet resilience to the character of Anna, a young woman forced to grow up too quickly when her mother is blinded by the blast. Sam Pomerant has the unplayable role of a young soldier who’s both a sweet-natured lover and an unpleasant bigot, but he does manage a true moment of tenderness when he says goodbye to Anna before he leaves for overseas. Kim Strauss brings a quiet dignity to the role of the German-Canadian woman who becomes a target of the mob, but she needs to ensure that an important key speech near the end is comprehensible.
Still, the bottom line is that the production seems to be struggling. Playgoers watching it may feel similarly challenged. It’s a pity that Kanata Theatre didn’t seek out a good play about the Halifax explosion. Such a script exists — Richard Ouzounian’s splendid dramatization of Barometer Rising, novelist Hugh MacLennan’s 1941 classic about this tragedy. It premiered at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre in 1987, the 70th anniversary of a disaster that, true to the sensibility of the novel, emerged as a metaphor for Canada’s coming of age. Compared with this success, Shatter is a play that has little reason to exist.
Shatter continues at Kanata Theatre to November 18.
Reviewed by Jamie Portman,
Director: Barbara Kobolak
Set: Dean Flockton
Lighting: Iain McCracken
Sound: Mike Bosnich
Costumes: Diane Smith