Matters of class

By Monica Prendergast, March 1, 2016

Some upcoming plays are designed to shake us down to our middle class roots.

Escape From HappinessIN PREVIOUS COLUMNS I have tackled topics of gender equity and the portrayal of race on stage. A number of  spring productions address the equally contentious yet vital issue of social class. 

This year’s line-up for the Belfry’s Spark Festival seems stellar to me, including a Governor General’s Playwriting Award winning play, a theatrical survey of gay history, a powerful one-man play about life on a northern reserve, and a community-based puppet play. The GG winner by Nicolas Billon, Iceland, and Cliff Cardinal’s Huff (returning to Victoria after appearing at Intrepid Theatre’s UNO Festival in 2013) both tackle class issues through quite different sets of lenses. 

Iceland comes to us from Toronto’s Why Not Theatre, having been previously seen at SummerWorks and the Factory Theatre. As Toronto theatre critic Jon Kaplan describes it, “Nicolas Billon’s absorbing play shows how three vastly different people are affected by what one character calls the C-word (capitalism) and the financial crisis.” Each of the three characters speaks directly to the audience in a very simply staged production that allows the audience to consider how the “C-word” has an effect on the lives of a venture capitalist interested only in making money, a devout Christian woman who is at risk of losing her home, and a young Estonian immigrant trying to survive in a new country. The play investigates some of the moral problems that are raised when everything is reduced to a commodity. Those aiming for entry into the one percent leave a lot of destruction in their greedy wake. 

I saw Huff in 2013 and look forward to seeing it again. Playwright and performer Cliff Cardinal (son of well-known actress Tantoo Cardinal) gives us a harrowing yet darkly humorous look at the lives of indigenous young people in the north of Canada. Cardinal has been touring this show across the country for the past three years. 

Although Cardinal has no direct experience of reservation life, his storytelling powers create a vivid and unforgettable portrait of endless cycles of deprivation, addiction and abuse. Cardinal has said in an interview with NOW Magazine that, “Kids are the most taboo subculture in Canada…and I think these young First Nations kids who engage in solvent abuse and suicide attempts are absolutely terrifying. Some stories grab me and won’t let go; this is one that as an artist I had to empathize with and in some fashion go through with an audience.” 

I was very moved by Huff, my taken-for-granted middle class privilege shaken by the experience.

Switching over to Langham Court Theatre, this company’s upcoming plays in March and April also offer some thought-provoking perspectives on class. 

Female Transport is a 1974 play by British playwright Steve Gooch. It is about a group of women convicts being transported to Australia in the early 1800s. As we witness these women’s journey, overseen by men (of course), we also become aware of the class circumstances that have led to their fate. 

Director Montgomery Björnson and his cast will have to work hard to capture the London working class dialects of these women as Gooch writes the play in this form. It is certainly a terrific play for strong female actors. Let’s hope the production, running March 2-19, succeeds in taking us back to a time when the Australian colony became a dumping ground for “undesirables” such as these poor women.

Starting April 20 and running to May 7 at the Langham, director Wendy Merk tackles Canadian playwright George F. Walker’s Escape from Happiness. Merk directed Walker’s Better Living at Langham Court in 2013. These two plays are from a trilogy of interconnected plays by Walker published as The East End Plays in 1999. 

Merk tells me what draws her to Walker’s plays: “I like his special brand of understated irony, his touch of absurdism, his hopeful pessimism, and the fact that he's Canadian—it’s so refreshing to hear Canadian speech patterns and idioms on the stage. That doesn’t happen a lot in amateur theatre in Victoria.” 

Walker has always been very class conscious, often presenting the lives of the working class or underclass, people who get lost in the cracks of society, the uneducated, addicts, petty criminals. Yet Walker shows much compassion for these characters who are very funny (unintentionally so) in the midst of the ongoing chaos of their lives. 

Escape from Happiness follows on directly from Better Living in tracing the lives of three sisters, their mother Nora and long-lost father Tom. Loosely inspired as a counterpoint to Anton Chekov’s classic Russian play The Three Sisters, these plays by Walker address both the hopefulness and hopelessness in characters who have very little, but dream of much more. Like the faded aristocrats in Chekov, these three sisters are struggling to survive, teetering on the edge of failure and collapse. And still we laugh at them (with them?) due to Walker’s quick and witty dialogue, and his personal understanding of this class setting. Walker grew up in poverty in the east end of Toronto, dropped out of high school and went on to write over 30 plays. He is a Member of the Order of Canada and his plays have been performed around the world. Walker rose above his class circumstances, unlike his many characters, despite their wish to do so.

Merk’s approach to Walker’s plays is, “to have the actors achieve absolute reality in all the crazy things that these characters say and do. No hamming up or playing for laughs is allowed! The secret to achieving good comedy is to play it straight and honestly.” 

I agree with Merk that actors playing characters whose lives are likely much harder than their own requires an acceptance of and sensitivity to difference. Thoughtless interpretation of the lives of the impoverished on stage can be, at its worst, a kind of class snobbery, a staging of contempt. At its thoughtful best, however, the performance of class can educate an audience, even raise consciousness on matters related to economic and cultural marginalization.

This spring sees Monica headed to New York to see some Broadway and off-Broadway shows. The cost of tickets may require a second mortgage. She believes theatre should, in an ideal society, be free to all.