Photo. courtesy of the NAC English Theatre. Eric Peterson as Percy Schmeiser
Reality is the seed of any theatrical piece. And when reality is an epic struggle between a corporate Goliath and an individual David, art seems a perfect place to imitate life.
Playwright/journalist Annabel Soutar has developed a fascinating, dense (sometimes too dense) docudrama in Seeds, a powerful piece of verbatim theatre about the landmark court case of Monsanto Canada versus Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser. (The official name of the case was Percy Schmeiser and Schmeiser Enterprises Ltd. v. Monsanto Canada Inc. and Monsanto Company, indicating greater breadth of connections. U.S.-based Monsanto is a massive international corporation. Canola oil farmer, plant breeder and local politician Schmeiser owns a 1,000-acre farm.)
Soutar’s detailed research is closely based on court trial transcripts and interviews with Schmeiser and Monsanto representatives, as well as with scientists, academics, lawyers, farmers and Schmeiser’s neighbours. Keeping the fact that this is a documentary front and centre, the author has made herself — the interviewer — part of the story. And, because she was pregnant during the research period, there is an overlay of her concern about the rights of her unborn child. One of those rights, it is suggested, is that the public should not be unwittingly exposed to genetically modified foods.
Although the controversy about GM food is at the philosophical core of Seeds, it is not the centre of the legal arguments. On the one hand, Monsanto argues that it is appropriate to pay for licences to use the patented products it has developed and points out that other farmers are paying the fees. On the other hand, Schmeiser argues that, as the wind blew the GM seeds onto his property, they become his to use as he sees fit. (As a plant breeder, he was familiar with the practice of modifying plant characteristics.) Stripped to these two points, it is not difficult to understand why the eventual 2004 Supreme Court decision came down 5:4. (Compare this with the 2002 case of whether or not the Harvard mouse could be patented, also a 5:4 decision in the opposite direction against being able to patent higher life forms, indirectly indicating that it might be possible to patent such lower life forms as plants.) Also consider Schmeiser’s initial argument about seeds blowing onto his land and think of the old conflict between neighbours, when a tree on one property has branches that hang over the other’s land.
Little wonder that Seeds has to negotiate a labyrinth of legal and scientific pathways on the way to the Supreme Court decision.
In the Porte Parole (Montreal) production currently at the NAC Theatre, director Chris Abraham guides the cast with a steady hand as they pound through the fast-paced docudrama, with all the cast except Eric Peterson as Schmeiser (a superb characterization) and Christine Beaulieu as the journalist, playing multiple roles.
Tanja Jacobs delivers wonderful cameos in such diverse roles as the hard-hitting lawyer for the prosecution, a lab scientist discussing DNA and the nurturing farm wife. (An aside: Louise Schmeiser countersued Monsanto for harming her organic garden. That suit was dismissed. Percy Schmeiser also countersued Monsanto for libel and trespass and for contaminating his fields, an action that led to the collapse of negotiations between the parties and the eventual journey to the Supreme Court.)
It would be virtually impossible to add these items to a script already so packed with information and technicalities that they sometimes blur rather than clarify the central issues. This, combined with the intentional clutter around the video-enhanced set, the frequently breathless switch among sequences and the foolish and awkward interaction with the audience at the beginning of the show, lessen rather than further the dramatic impact.
Even so, Seeds offers much food for thought and is an interesting retelling of a landmark court decision.
Seeds continues at the NAC to April 12
By Annabel Soutar
A Porte Parole (Montreal) production
An NAC English Theatre presentation
Director: Chris Abraham
Set and costumes: Julie Fox
Lighting: Ana Cappelluto
Sound and music composition: Richard Feren
Video and projection/media design: Elysha Poirier
Percy Schmeiser…………………………………………..Eric Peterson
Playwright etc……………………………………………..Christine Beaulieu
Multiple roles: Bruce Dinsmore, Mariah Inger, Alex Ivanovici, Tanja Jacobs, Cary Lawrence