The Shaw Festival ventures into Canadian history with 1837

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: David Cooper

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. —  There’s a certain fascination in the experience of sitting in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s historic Court House and watching an adroit company of Shaw Festival actors relive events that actually happened in the vicinity 180 years ago.

But it was also intriguing to note the scowls on the faces of some board heavyweights the other afternoon when 1837: The Farmers Revolt landed firmly — even defiantly — on the Court House Theatre stage. This festival constitutes a curious anomaly in the theatrical world: The playwright who gave the festival its name was an unrepentant Socialist, yet its destiny rests in the hands of a board of impeccable Establishment credentials.

1837: The Farmers’ Revolt is driven by a leftist ideology that can still ruffle conservative feathers. However, it’s the self-serving Establishment of Upper Canada — the “thieves, rogues, villains and fools of the ruling class” —  that gets whacked in this exhilarating revival of a seminal work in the history of this country’s alternative theatre movement.

Director Philip Akin and an incredibly versatile cast of eight ensure that there’s never a dull moment in this re-enactment of the by-now mythic story of how a desperate group of farmers, led by a firebrand named William Lyon Mackenzie, rebelled against an English-speaking elite that held an unacceptable degree of power over the lives of ordinary people. It was a failed rebellion, but it did see lives lost, Mackenzie fleeing south of the border to safety and other rebels going to the scaffold.

That the farmers had a legitimate grievance is indisputable. And on its own level, 1837: The Farmers Revolt constitutes an accomplished piece of — yes — spin.

There’s no denying the dramatic impact of the scene where Jeremiah Sparks, excellent in the role of an unctuous magistrate from a nearby town, tells a group of squatters to get off the land they have spent month after back-breaking month clearing of trees. It’s enough in this culture that a well-heeled beneficiary of government cronyism wants the land. These usurpers, undeserving of even a grain of attention from the ruling culture of the day, must leave.

A moment like this ignites our indignation. In dramatic terms, it lights the fuse for what is to come. But what we’re getting here is slick polemic — served up as a kaleidoscope in which high drama, spirited comedy, ritualized movement and evocative music are in constant interaction. Let’s face it: has the Skye Boat Song ever failed to tug the heartstrings?

Director Philip Akin calls 1837:The Farmers’ Revolt as “a great, percolating stew of a play.”  The tableau it presents of the Upper Canada culture of the day is selective — there’s no doubt it’s loaded in pursuit of an agenda  — but this engaging production demonstrates how well it can work in performance.

One has to treasure those merry moments when Ric Reid, the jolliest of revolutionaries in his portrayal of William Lyon Mackenzie, starts introducing us the colony’s entrenched enemies of change. This is a cue for an immensely talented young actor named Travis Seetoo to prance effortlessly through a amusing procession of identities: the shyster politicians, the smug jurists, the opportunistic lawyers and bureaucrats, the compromised clerics like Bishop Strachan, all of them self-satisfied and self-righteous in their defense of privilege, no matter how corrupt.

There are only eight cast members — Donna Belleville, Sharry Flett, Jonah McIntosh, Marla McLean, Ric Reid, Cherissa Richards, Travis Seetoo and Jeremiah Sparks. All make solid contributions here, working together seamlessly under the guidance of Philip Akin and movement director Esie Mensah in serving the ever-shifting ensemble demands of the material. Hence, Travis Seetoo again delights us later in the show with his vaudevillian turn as an imperialistic ventriloquist who finds a hilarious Cherissa Richards to be a less than compliant colonial dummy. Marla McLean can smoothly assume the identity of a fledgling farmer, and Sharry Flett — excellent in all her various identities — can effortlessly assume the voice and personality of that celebrated immigrant, Susannah Moodie.

But no matter, how well it’s done, 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt can’t escape the feel of being a somewhat rigid classroom lesson. The piece is a collective creation from members of Toronto’s groundbreaking Theatre Passe Muraille which also had the good sense to bring in playwright Rick Salutin to help glue everything together. It belongs in the forefront of a theatrical genre that flourished in Canada in the 1970s and also yielded such other notable collective creations as Ten Lost Years and Paper Wheat.

Today, however, 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt should probably be accepted for what it really is — a still potent theatrical vehicle but also a simplistic one. The struggles over control of land in 19th Century Ontario are also at the root of the bloody mythology surrounding the Black Donnellys — but the late James Reaney’s Donnelly Trilogy, also a product of the Seventies, as well as Jonathan Christenson’s more recent Vigilante, provide a more nuanced and complex examination of these matters than does the show now at the Shaw Festival.

So it could be argued that 1837: The Farmers Revolt is showing its age while losing none of its vitality when done well. But it’s also being revived in a less welcoming climate. When you watch Mackenzie and his cohorts plotting to break into an armory and steal its weapons, or watch a young woman practicing lethal thrusts with a pitchfork, you may be asking yourself some uncomfortable questions. Could these rebels turn into terrorists? Should we be celebrating them? And does William Lyon Mackenzie, far more of a volatile firebrand than what we get on stage, really deserve this much of a free pass?

Furthermore, at a time when indigenous rights are so much on our minds, it’s less easy to forget that settlers and homesteaders, whatever their political persuasion, were often perpetrators of a land grab from First Nations people. Akin and his creative people are stuck with the text of the play, but the production does reach back to the past with a fiercely ritualized opening and a set design by Rachel Forbes that evokes the imagery of Norval Morrisseau.

It’s perhaps asking too much of a piece like 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt to give us the full story. But history tells us that some 1,000 black militia men fought on the government’s side to put down the rebellion. That side of the story has yet to be told on stage — notwithstanding the involvement of a black director and outstanding black actors in the current production. There’s more than a little irony here.

(1837: The Farmers’ Revolt continues to Oct. 8. Ticket information at 1 800 511 7429 or shawfest.com)


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