By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Colleen Murphy has undertaken some audacious theatrical projects in her time.
Who else in this country do you go to for a 23-actor play with a time span of 500 years, and a polar bear protagonist (The Breathing Hole)? Or a two-part six-hour epic that challenges historical commonplaces about the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham with 33 historical and fictional human characters and 12 animal and bird characters (Geography of Fire/ La Furie et sa géographie)? Or a high-risk drama confronting the grisly horrors against women perpetrated by serial killer Robert Pickton, and the crushing indifference of the police and the culture at large (Pig Girl)?.
Yes, the much-awarded Canadian playwriting star is dauntless. So when she says on the phone, on the last day of the decade, “what the hell am I going to do here?” you might gulp. Murphy is talking about the commission offered in 2015 by actor/artistic director Stephen Drover of Vancouver’s Rumble Theatre. It was an adaptation (her first ever, incidentally) of Shakespeare’s gore-splattered revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus, a play with a shocking complement of cannibalism, rape, assorted dismemberments, beheadings, stabbings, etc. A notorious stage direction gives you the drift: “enter a messenger with two heads and a hand.”
“They probably thought I was the blood and guts person,” says Murphy with an amused shrug in her voice. She said Yes. “I’d never done an adaptation before; I thought it would be easy.…”
Then she read the play again. “O gawd, I don’t believe this. And the more I read it I thought ‘this is a really boring play. Holy shit, this is very unconvincing’…. It’s a young play, an early play, and it’s not a good play. Titus returns from war and decides not to be the emperor, and all shit breaks loose. So what?”
An instant hit in 1594, Titus Andronicus went on to prove that even Shakespeare got bad reviews. “One of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written,” said T.S. Eliot in one of the milder assessments. Murphy recalls a Brit production of a couple of years ago. “The mark of its success was how many audience members fainted each time…. That kind of stuff just bores me. It’s all fake blood and earnestness. I can’t stand the earnestness of Shakespeare (productions). I don’t believe Shakespeare was an earnest person. Certainly not in the writing.”
Do not expect boredom from The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius, opening Thursday at Theatre Network. And do not expect fake blood; characters get sprayed with ketchup.
The Bradley Moss production reconnects the playwright with a theatre that has regularly produced her plays, Armstrong’s War and Pig Girl among them. And she’s working on a TN commission (an initiative enabled by a new Morris Foundation fund): Joan Upside Down is about a girl who gets ejected from a family of brothers with substance abuse issues and dead-end jobs.
Titus Bouffonius is tangible proof that Murphy found a way to connect with an intractable Shakespeare play. “It took a long time to find the way in, emotionally,” she says. “That’s our job as playwrights…. You don’t get paid the big bucks for just soldiering on (small laughter here). It’s got to be meaningful.”
It was when Murphy was playwright-in-residence at the U of A, “watching Mike’s (Michael Kennard, aka Mump of the celebrated horror clown duo Mump and Smoot) students do bouffon shows every year. And I suddenly started to understand the form in which I could do the adaptation and express that world.” Bouffon, she says, “is a style in which nothing is sacred.” Not even the fourth wall, the barrier between the players and the audience.
“It’s a very rigorous form of clowning. You have to be fearless, and very strict in form.” And Kennard, a notable clown mentor who’s been working with the Theatre Network cast, is known to be a very demanding teacher, as Murphy points out approvingly. “You can’t be a successful clown unless you really know what you’re doing and how to control it. It just turns into appeasement, and mush. And for the audience, dull.”
The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius is a particularly intricate challenge. Murphy explains. “Five actors are playing homeless characters who live in a shelter, who are bouffon clowns. And on top of that the bouffon clowns are trying to play Shakespeare characters in their own interpretation of Titus they’re putting on…. You have three different levels.”
“We workshopped it a few times out west. And I said to folks let’s keep it low-key…. It’s so politically incorrect, and I don’t want to be run out of town on a razor blade. Yet again.” Murphy laughs. “People loved it,” she says, with some bemusement, of the Rumble Theatre premiere in Vancouver that won six Jessie Richardson Awards.
The only characters in Titus Andronicus that Murphy found she cared about were the kids, who in number get killed and/or mutilated in the course of events. “Titus keeps saying ‘our kids are going come back and haunt us’. So she went with that: the human cast is supplemented by a contingent of plastic dollies. In Vancouver, the final image was the side walls plastered with dolls painted white, the dead children. “Underneath all the ‘fun’,” says Murphy, “is a very serious thing: how the hell can you be killing your children like this? And we still do it. Open a newspaper any day of the week….”
“Children’s lives are meaningless; they’re collateral damage. You can kill them, or rape them, or cut off their hands…. At some point you put your fist in the sky and say I do not agree.” Says Murphy, “it’s when I find my way in, emotionally that my heart starts to beat.”
Controversy seems to be part of Murphy’s life as a playwright, witness the brouhaha attending Theatre Network’s production of Pig Girl. On opening night of Titus Bouffonius in Vancouver some audience members walked out. OK, only a handful, she amends, sounding supremely unfazed. “And they were challenged by the bouffons for doing it.” She is bemused that the walk-outs happened in a scene involving the pulling out of a tampon. “O, that’s the test? Really? Cmon, it’s the 21st century,” she says.
Alas, she won’t be on hand for the Theatre Network opening. She’s working on a new opera, Fantasma (with Métis composer Ian Cusson) which premieres this year at the Canadian Opera Company. Part II of Geography of Fire/ La Furie et sa géographie, happens at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. Armstrong’s War is becoming a film. Joan Upside Down is in progress.
As both a filmmaker and a playwright Murphy has always been a taboo-breaker. One of her favourite mantras, as I recall from other conversations, is playwright Howard Barker’s “the theatre of disagreement.” In Titus Bouffonius, there’s no hiding of the outrageous.
“In some of my other plays, some of the subversiveness is contained under traditional text-based narrative. It’s more out front and centre in this one.… And I like that!”
The Society For The Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius
Theatre: Theatre Network
Written by: Colleen Murphy
Directed by: Bradley Moss
Starring: Robert Benz, Helen Belay, Hunter Cardinal, Bobbi Goddard, Marguerite Lawler
Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: Jan. 30 to Feb. 16
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca