Jenny Young (Frieda) and Jonathan Wilson (Heinrich Mann). Photo: Kaufmann Photography.
The first thing one notices in this perfectly equipped theatre are the seats, placed on opposing sides of the performance space. They lengthen the long rectangular area in the middle, creating a back and forth movement of the eye. This is well suited to Stephen Massicotte’s interpretation of the nature of memory and its intricate relationship with the passage of time, all woven through a complex theatrical narrative involving a Clockmaker (Jonathan Wilson), a married woman Frieda (Jenny Young), a violent husband Adolphus (Brett Christopher) and a sinister interrogator (Gordon Bolan).
Nowadays, the notion of collective "memory” is not innocent. Events of 20th Century history have associated “memory" with massacres, with genocides, mass killings, with suffering and horror. Individual personal memory is also linked to something painful, as Frieda asserts at the end when the accumulated fragments of historical references and innocent encounter between the Clockmaker and Frieda fall into place, thus restoring the tension that seemed to fade out during a good portion of the performance.
It all appears to take place in a European country which is not clearly defined. However, protagonists with names such as Heinrich Mann, Frieda, Adolphus and even Pierre, suggest a precise traumatic event, a network of cruelty and oppression related to events of the second world war.
Let me be perfectly clear. The play makes no attempt to deal directly with those events but it suggests images that symbolise such references, thus making us reflect on the nature of memory in a more contemporary context. It is therefore an enormous metaphor about the meaning of remembering that is so much part of contemporary consciousness. A tall order for a playwright who is not pretending to write a treatise on psychology, morals, human rights, and social justice. Perhaps that is just the problem. The focus seems dispersed, multiple, all-encompassing and not clearly defined.
In the first scene, Pierre, an interrogator with a French designation, is having an apparently innocent conversation with the clockmaker whom he addresses sarcastically as Herr Mann. However, the stage setting creates a completely different picture. It places us squarely in a “film noir” mode and its characteristics inherited from Expressionist theatre.
Thunderous percussions and electronic sounds vibrate in a strange menacing way. Loud unsettling footsteps echo off stage through a long corridor as almost puppet-like characters emerge from the shadows. Todd Charlton’s distinctively sinister sound design created the inhuman presence of the interrogator Pierre, played by Gordon Bolan, sitting at a table, opposite the squirming Herr Mann.
What stands out is the way Pierre toys with Mann in a “nice” way. Quickly, Pierre’s insidious smile, and apparently innocent questions, masque doubt, suspicion, silent accusations, a whole subtext that barely hides a desire to destabilize poor trembling Herr Mann who doesn’t know what this man really wants. The strategies of interrogation suggest a world of dictatorship, and send us back to the collective memories of totalitarian regime tactics. The fact that Pierre is ever present in the shadows, always observing the actors, suggests not only a historical link to the characters but even a more ontological one where he become an evil and oppressive force that shapes the universe. Given this hidden terror, Kafka’s life and work come to mind as Herr Heinrich Mann (take a look at his homonym’s relation with the Nazi party ) has no idea what Pierre is talking about, what he wants nor what he is supposed to have done
The play in fact sets us up for a possible murder, but also foretells a staging that is powerful, terrifying and extraordinary in its ambiguity. But then, something blocks, and the magic doesn’t take place. .
The rest becomes anti-climactic. The movement slows down until the final 30 minutes when the loose threads are very neatly tied together and we are back on track.
I had some trouble remaining focussed on these episodes that director Kathryn MacKay unravels like the parts of a fable as it moves slowly through the unstable temporality of Mann’s troubled past and present. As a clockmaker, his near magical power to control time, suggests his similarities with a creature out of an E.T. A. Hoffmann story fuelled by the encounter with an apparently child-like and joyful Frieda who is living a nightmarish life with a brutal husband. The name of this husband, Adolphus, given the circumstances of the situation, tells you how it will end.
Love comes into the picture and the Clockmaker decides to solve Frieda’s problem, but not quite the way we might imagine. The encounter gives rise to fabulous flights into the past of Mann’s’ childhood, as love reveals sinister dreams of unfulfilled perfection that also bring us back to those regimes of the past and even into the imaginary world of Soderbergh’s 1991 film Kafka. The film features a huge oppressive clock, hiding secret meanings in an unfathomable world of endless doors and corridors. Massicotte and director Kathryn MacKay reinvent this Kafka-like atmosphere, by presenting a rather banal misunderstanding between the Clockmaker and the ambivalent Frieda as the blissful Heinrich retreats into an imaginary world of his own obsessions.
In these complex relationships Robin Fisher’s excellent set exemplified this somber state of unfathomable relations. I liked the moment when Jonathan Wilson (Mann) takes out his beautiful clocks and describes them to Frieda as the signs of an unfulfilled past. The moments between Frieda and her husband Adolphus were very disturbing and the growing violence simmering under the surface refers to a world where Hell is no longer “les autres” but ironically that place where individual memory has survived . A clever twist but a comment that brings the metaphor closer to the reality of contemporary events.
Michael Walton’s circular lighting effects set up above the stage bring out the form of a huge clock shining on the floor as a concrete time set on the ground that appears to trap de protagonists in the final moments of the play. As an apparent reference to Soderbergh’s film where Kafka hides in the shadows of that world of loneliness, madness and obsession, the sense of “déjà vu” spoiled the impact.
Jenny Young as the beleaguered Frieda, played between various registers of innocence, abused womanhood, defensively hiding the truth and melting into the contradictory dream world that both Heinrich and Adolphus offer her. She was very convincing as she built up a sense of ambivalence that was important here.
It was the strange interpretation of Heinrich Mann, by Jonathan Wilson that I found rather curious. Totally devoid of mystery, of “estrangement”, of anything that made us curious about this man, he seemed to be playing at the surface of a stereotypical slightly aging traditional clockmaker out of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tales or Hans Christian Anderson’s story telling, slightly out of tone with the world and prone to an odd high pitched and almost campy gasp that got laughs. He was not the victim, not the murderer, not the sympathetic friend, not the individual with special powers capable of changing dimensions and manipulating time. Even in his seemingly innocuous presence as a simple little man, he was still positioned as a force of attraction in this play but this Heinrich Mann could not rise to the expectations of this magical universe.
The Clockmaker draws on multiple visual, literary and esthetic traditions that intertwine closely and feed off each other at various levels. From that perspective, Massicotte’s play contains the material for several exceedingly interesting performances, not just one. Maybe that was the problem. Nevertheless, one of the narratives was fulfilled at the end but somehow, one felt that something was neglected. There is a mixture of sources that do not function as powerfully as they might because of the ambivalent meeting of serious, less serious and even comic tones that don’t fall into place. The Clockmaker started with a very strong statement of style and great expectations but it soon melted away leaving a performance that turned in on itself , that did not always hold my attention, but that had enormous stylistic potential. Still, it did not have the impact on me that I was expecting and it was slightly disappointing. .
The Clockmaker plays at the Firehall Theatre (Thousand Islands Playhouse) from August 10 to September 8m 2012, in Gananoque.
. Ottawa, Alvina Ruprecht, 20 August, 2012
By Stephen Massicotte
1000 Islands Playhouse, Firehall Theatre August 10 – September 8
Director: Kathryn MacKay
Set & Costumes: Robin Fisher
Lighting: Michael Walton
Sound: Todd Charlton
Fight Director: Greg Wanless
Pierre: Gordon Bolan
Adolphus: Brett Christopher
Heinrich Mann: Jonathan Wilson
Frieda: Jenny Young