Greg Kramer as The Player. Photo: Barbara Gray.
Ottawa has finally done it! The latest production of the New Theatre of Ottawa, could proudly represent us at the Stratford or Shaw Festivals and in any case, it belongs on the stage of the National Arts Centre English theatre. This has been a long time coming but the slow and steady growth of local professional theatre in this city has at last given birth to a truly great work of the stage.
Surprisingly, The Player’s Advice to Shakespeare, a monologue by Brian K. Stewart, is his first play although the author is certainly not a stranger to the stage. However, the creative team of director John Koensgen (award winning actor who did several seasons at Stratford), lighting designer Martin Conboy, who transforms light into a mysterious living substance , and Greg Kramer, the immensely talented vocal and corporeal presence that grips us for 90 minutes, have all united their talents to transform the written word into a living monument of performance excellence.
Kramer becomes a cynical, narcissistic and extremely witty Shakespearean actor who has worked closely with the Bard. He is in the King’s prison addressing us (“who the hell are you? I don’t want an audience, I want a saviour!”) as shrieks of pain echo from outside those walls, reminding us that people are being put to death in that dungeon of horror. James Richardson’s sound design is extremely good and one wonders what he did to get such unearthly howls.
The actor explains how he came to be in prison and his story is a most intricate encounter between history and art, that has us literally participating in a bloody massacre from the past. Explaining the situation of the peasants in the period following the death of Queen Elizabeth, the “player” brings to light the early years of the reign of James I, a period marked by the rise of the Jacobean vengeance tragedy, traces of which can be found in this script. However, he speaks more specifically about the Midland Revolt, which broke out in 1607.
At that moment, the landed aristocracy decided to close off the part of their vast land holdings that had always been common land. The idea was to create pasture for raising sheep. The result was that people living on those open lands were forced out of their homes, condemned to poverty, misery and even death. Demonstrations against this situation turned into angry rebellion and James I, who ordered his deputies to put down the revolt, became responsible for the mutilation and killing of masses of people.
The essence of the actor’s narrative, is a description of those events, in which he himself participated, but it also becomes a critique of Shakespeare’s writing which, according to our player, reveals a shocking discovery! The Bard, in spite of his constant representation of common people in his plays, never really liked the masses. According to our imprisoned actor, the playwright never even tried to represent the reality of their suffering at the moment of that revolt. In fact, says the player, Shakespeare equated the common people with the Roman mob of undefinable riff raff.
This critique brings with it a reaction of shock and bitter disappointment, tinged with irony and angry humour, as our intrepid Shakespearean actor tells us of the staging of Shakespeare’s new play Coriolanus (created at the same period) where the Bard, in spite of all the butchery during the Midlands Revolt several years earlier, was still not able to show any form of sympathy for those who suffered such atrocities. He still wrote for those “in authority” and our actor is disturbed and disillusioned by such news.
Of course, Shakespeare is not a historian and does not pretend to develop theories of history so whatever else one might think, the artistic value of his writing for the stage remains intact. Nevertheless, this very original perspective presented by Stewart gives us a fascinating insight and a different image of Shakespeare’s theatre, from the perspective of a contemporary actor whose lowly social status condemns him to a life of poverty and mistreatment and thus someone who cannot fathom Shakespeare’s apparent lack of sensitivity for the suffering of the lower classes. The “player’s “ contempt for Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s actor friend whom he mentions often with a terrible sneer, is linked to the Bard’s same elitist attitude aimed at pleasing Royalty. Of course such an alter ego set up as our “hero”, is all the more fun on stage because nothing is sacred anymore and everything becomes the brunt of his rapier wit.
In those conditions, the play allows Greg Kramer to create a performance that is truly unforgettable. Bursting with lusty irreverence, the “actor” captures every nuance of emotion, all the gestures, every single accent that locates geographically each individual who emerges from this narrative which Kramer incarnates throughout the evening, giving us an enormous fresco of Jacobean Britain of the time. He recreates the actor’s life, the horrors of that bloody war, the demagogy of the instigators; we see and hear about his flight back to London on foot where he almost died of hunger and thirst, his new life in London as a hunted rebel. He even performs a critical version of the performance of the Bard’s latest play, Coriolanus, with comments on the acting and the text, a beautiful meeting of brilliant corporeal ease and vocal manoeuvering that enhance Stewart’s fine writing and show us the enormous scope of Kramer’s capabilities as a performer.
And it is all done with a table, a stool, a beer mug and a lone carrot that becomes any manner of hand held tools but it seems to evoke the image of Beckett’s banana, the lone comic object in this setting of misery and hopelessness. Kramer is the ironic, self-congratulatory actor rotting away in prison crouched on his little stool, explaining about his wonderful life on stage with old Will. His story of the revolt as he takes up arms and marches away to help the people, conjures up the unbearable reality of all those events right before our eyes. His body seems to assume the whole rebellious crowd at once, including a certain Pouch inciting the crowds on to protest. Then there is the moment where protest turns into rebellion when a young man is killed by the soldiers and the people can no longer control its anger. We really see the soldiers charging, we hear and see those terrified crowds screaming for their lives as the King’s men advance with their weapons drawn; we see the mutilated bodies falling apart and the anger of the people trying to regain possession of their land. Greg becomes a whole world of multiple bodies and voices and emotions that fills the space with his immense voice and his flowing movements. As he marches towards a bridge that straddles a river, one of Conboy’s most striking lighting effects brings up shadows along the walls and seems to produce a form of electric current that links a whole corridor of imaginary hanging bodies that we see, and smell, and hear .
After so much playful horror, and vicious irony, buoyed up by a seemingly inexhaustible sense of life, the “actor” falters at the end. He recovers his wits and begins painting a picture of the way criminals are executed. As he describes the merciless end that awaits him, he is possessed by fear and even panic and the tears finally appear through those eyes where the light is slowly dying.
His physical suffering will take place off stage so that he will become another one of those shrieking souls we heard at the beginning of the play. The spark of his creative fire has already burnt out and we die right there with him. Greg Kramer’s performance is a masterpiece and a defining moment of theatre in this city
. Do not miss The Player’s Advice to Shakespeare . It plays until March 17 at Arts Court. Performances begin at 20h00. Tickets are 30$ regular, 25$ for seniors and students. For information call the box office at 613-564-7240. Note as well that a film based on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus starring Ralph Fiennes is now playing at the ByTowne until March 15.
The Player’s Advice to Shakespeare
New Theatre of Ottawa at Arts Court.
By Brian K. Stewart
A production of the New Theatre of Ottawa,
Directed by John Koensgen
Lighting by Martin Conboy
Sest and costume design by Sarah Waghorn
Sound design by James Richardson
Featuring Greg Kramer as the Player.