Peter Hinton, artistic director of the English theatre at the National Arts Centre had his work cut out for him at the Shaw Festival with the staging of Andrew Bovell’s play When the Rain Stops Falling. The work is a complex investigation of family secrets, intimate tragedies, experiences of shame, despair and confused identities.
Photo: by David Cooper. Jeff Meadows as Gabriel Law in When the Rain Stops Falling
Gabriel Law (Jeff Meadows) sets out on a mysterious quest, trying to reconstitute the life of Henry, his father, played by Graeme Somerville with a sense of great tragic presence. Since his father disappeared when he was only seven years old, Gabriel knows nothing about him, and his mother (Donna Belleville as the older Elizabeth) refuses to speak of her husband. It quickly becomes clear that the family history, which crosses through several generations, moving back and forth from London England to Australia, is set out almost like a series of fragmented dreams, suggesting troubling secrets that the young man must bring to light and resolve, in order to come to terms with his own life.
During this initiation ritual of self-discovery in Australia, Gabriel falls in love with a woman also called Gabrielle (Krista Colosimo) whose younger brother disappeared mysteriously when he was seven years old. This coincidence of similar names and numbers is only the first of many strange occurrences that fuels the mystery, and suggest the presence of invisible forces at work in this shadowy family history where a forbidden, sacred place, Uluru (Ayers Rock) attracts the men of the family and contributes to the tragic destiny of all concerned.
After having read the play, and before seeing it on stage, I felt that audiences might have difficulty following the story, given the complexity of the play’s structure. Its fragmented and sliding time frames, closely linked to traditional aboriginal narrative, are all the more difficult to follow when one sees that seven characters are played by nine actors, moving back and forth in time. The varying ages of the same character are played by different actors, with all these actors meeting on stage in the past, observing each other in the present and the future. Moreover, they appear to fuse the different times into a global time frame that transcends our habitual relationship with the world. I really wondered how Peter Hinton was going to avoid confusing the audience.
My fears were completely unfounded. Hinton has succeeded in creating a work of great depth and haunting beauty that weaves its web of irresistible magic through a very special form of fragmented storytelling on a western style stage. This was possible because he has controlled his usual taste for hyper baroque visual refinement and let the text speak for itself. The uncluttered stage creates a perfect space where the text comes alive in a world haunted by the shadows of the dead , by figures from the past moving seamlessly in a space defined by the rain, that somehow transcends the real world but still belongs on a very material stage. Any sense of confusion is quickly dissipated.
Camellia Koos set design is an important contribution to the success of this project. A huge backdrop that resembles blocks of translucent glass covers the upstage wall. Behind this surface we see human shadows moving back and forth in the rain as the sounds of the deluge hum in our ears. The remaining space is dominated by a huge table where three generations of this family meet and join each other as they live through the most secret and difficult moments of their past, trying to resolve all that has been hidden. As events accumulate, everyone slowly sips a soup made from the fish that has fallen miraculously from the sky, so that the performance often plays out as a continuous healing ritual of collective communion.
The table also becomes a second acting space where the characters stand as they try to contemplate the world from the heights of the forbidden sacred Uluru, that dangerous place that nevertheless draws the male members of the family into its sphere of influence and precipitates their tragic destiny.
In fact the image of the rock becomes a leitmotif throughout the play, while the rain metaphorically heals, cleanses and purifies the liquid dreamworld of the stage, giving rise to mysterious events that prepare a new world order where the new generation will free the family history from its tragic past.
Peter Hinton’s stage vision dominates the ensemble thus we are mostly aware of an ensemble of well balanced performances that slowly construct a sense of never faltering tension and urgency. However, Graeme Somerville as the father was an especially tragic presence who interiorizes much grief and Tara Rosling’s shock and anger as the younger Elizabeth (the mother), added much to the tension that builds throughout the evening.
Kevin Lamotte’s dramatic lighting design and Richard Feren’s sound design create important effects that take us into intimate moments with the family, but also soaring movements of epic conscience as the lightning rips open the sky, thunder echoes in our ears and all the sadness and corruption appear to be washed away.
As the links between aboriginal rituals, images from Christian mythology, and the Age of French Enlightenment unite closely in this mysterious quest, we have the sense of an epic meeting of cultures, a movement of global bonding that sets off a vast process of transformation. This change takes place both at the level of the reality of the lives of those meeting around the table, but also at the level of those ancestors and invisible presences haunting the world that the director has created for us in the new Studio space.
The text and the staging come together beautifully in this very sensitive reading of a play that cannot say everything it has to say on paper because much of it gives a voice to forces that are beyond the text. Peter Hinton has heard and seen those invisible presences and integrated them in a most fitting way in this very moving production that leaves the audience almost breathless when it comes to an end. When the Rain Stops Falling is , to date, one of the most important works of Hinton’s own theatrical repertoire and I hope he will eventually bring the play to the Studio of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
(The play was seen in Preview at the Shaw Festival Studio Theatre. It opens on Aug. 26 and plays until September 11).
Niagara on the Lake, First posted on www.scenechanges.com