By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives.…”
The thorny little two-hander that opens Thursday on the Varscona stage, the finale of the inaugural Varscona Theatre Ensemble series, invokes that classic nursery rhyme puzzle — over tea.
And what starts out as a civilized encounter in an English country house between two women — an eminent English eye surgeon and her new patient, the English-educated mother of an African dictator — gradually expands into a bona-fide tug-of-war, a deal-making negotiation between cultures, between the personal and the political, between the First and Third Worlds.
Going To St. Ives, opening Thursday on the Varscona stage (the finale of the inaugural Varscona Theatre Ensemble series) marks a return to active duty of Julien Arnold’s Atlas Theatre company. With the cunning 2005 play, by the American writer Lee Blessing (A Walk in the Woods), actor/director Arnold, a Teatro La Quindicina fave in when he’s onstage himself, returns to a play he cracked in a 2011 production.
“It’s so sharp,” says Arnold happily. Blessing “explores wider political issues, moral conflicts, the dynamics of colonialism — but cleverly, in the context of personal exchange that gradually reveal secrets.” For veteran actors like Patricia Darbasie and Belinda Cornish, returning to the production in this Atlas revival, the fun is “the doubleness,” says Arnold. “A veneer of politeness and underneath, strong feelings.”
“That’s one of the main challenges in rehearsal,” he says. “Discovering what’s happening underneath; there’s a lot of passive-aggression going on.” It’s tricky as well, he reports, “to decides when to reveal the characters’ true motives…. What should be concealed? And for how long? Yes, there’s a thriller element to it. Just when you think you have it figured out, you haven’t!” Then, in Act II, Going To St. Ives moves to Africa. And the complexities mount.
The son of English parents, Arnold spent his early childhood years in East Africa, Tanzania. His grandfather had been stationed there during World War II, and “was so drawn to it he took the family back there to live from 1949 to 1969.” He worked as a head master and Arnold’s mom and dad were teachers. They left Africa when Arnold was five.
“My grandfather was very interesting to talk to,” Arnold recalls. “Not conservative at all, of fierce English socialist stock. But a very British stiff-upper-lip way about him….” A conversation with him was an education in the persistence of, and even a certain idealistic streak in, colonialism.
Arnold maintains a dual actor/director life. Freewill Shakespeare Festival audiences have seen him onstage, in every size of role. For many years he was the quintessential Bob Cratchit in the Citadel’s production of A Christmas Carol, until he stepped up to Scrooge himself for the most recent edition. And his connections to the Varscona and its companies run deep. He’s best known to audiences there for his appearances with both Teatro La Quindicina and Shadow Theatre; he co-starred with Reed McColm in the latter’s premiere production of Slumberland Motel earlier this season.
Joining Plain Jane Theatre and Bright Young Things in the Varscona Ensemble is a welcome prospect for an indie like Atlas, which made its debut with Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West in 2008. “The opportunity to concentrate on the art? And share costs, marketing, box office? Wonderful! says Arnold.
And the invitation to join the series means, as well, that all three of Ensemble companies will get a Fringe slot at the Varscona, one of the festival’s leading BYOVs. From Atlas, audiences will be seeing Sirens. Arnold describes the four-actor 2011 comedy by the American Deborah Zoe Laufer as “funny, sweet, charming….”
Meanwhile, a tense, high-stakes battle of agendas for two women is happening on the Varscona stage. After Friday night’s performance of Going To St. Ives, the cast joins Edmonton journalist Innocent Madawo, who spent many years filing from Zimbabwe, in a discussion/ Q and A with the audience.
Going To St. Ives
Written by: Lee Blessing
Directed by: Julien Arnold
Starring: Patricia Darbasie and Belinda Cornish
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: Thursday through April 14