By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The play that premieres Friday on the Varscona stage in a Bright Young Things production, is a test case of sorts for the uncanny way comedy gets a special access pass to the deepest, most serious of subjects.
Even its title has an elusive smoke to it. Hiraeth, explains playwright Belinda Cornish, Bright Young Things’ artistic director, gets its name from a Welsh word that’s untranslatable into English. “The closest,” she says, “is a longing for a home you never had, or to which you can never return, a longing for something that is out of reach. An exquisite longing.” You feel it; you know it; you cannot define it.
Hiraeth is a collaboration between Cornish and Rachel Peake, written by the former, directed by the latter. And it came out of comedy — to wit, their work together as playwright/director on The Garneau Block, Cornish’s stage adaptation of the satirical Todd Babiak novel, which closed not long ago.
Two premieres, and three opening nights, in a month: there’s a crazy no-intermission intensity, screwball energy perhaps?, to the theatrical pacing of Cornish’s life during a global pandemic. Since June she’s directed four productions — three on film and the fourth (Fever Land) live — for Teatro La Quindicina, where she’s co-artistic producer.
When The Garneau Block got postponed yet again at the Citadel last March, on the very eve of its first preview, “we refused to be defeated by lockdown,” says Cornish of her friendship and artistic rapport with Peake. “We immediately started working on a new piece together…. To be able to come back 18 or 19 months later at the Citadel was amazing. We didn’t really intend to do two shows back-to-back.”
“It was all about the director/playwright relationship,” says Peake, the exuberant associate artistic director at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre (she had a similar position at the Citadel for three seasons till 2020). “I wanted it to continue!” She asked Cornish “so what else are you writing?”
“Rachel and I had a very long coffee and ventured into some pretty deep subjects,” says Cornish. They bonded over “a common experience of hiraeth,” for one thing, and for another, a shared affection for dark comedy, says Peake. Post-Hiraeth she returns to Vancouver to launch an Arts Club season that opens with the Dolly Parton musical Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol, and she’ll be back to direct 9 to 5 at the Citadel later this season (“I’m nerding out on all things Dolly”).
The experience Cornish and Peake shared (one that the playwright had been keeping for theatre “in a back pocket-y sort of way”) was in vitro fertilization, in all its emotional turbulence, longing, frustrations that tilt toward tragedy, the gift and curse of hope. “We found we’d walked the same path in slightly different shoes,” as Cornish puts it delicately. “It’s an odd thing to write a comedy about.” That was the challenge.
The result is “an odd-couple comedy about a tiny tragedy,” as it’s billed. One of the two characters is a successful 40-year-old business woman (Kristi Hansen) whose career is in top running order, with everything in place — except a baby. Sidi is undergoing IVF treatment to adjust that part of her life plan. “At the apex of stress in her life, a young woman (Rochelle Laplante) moves into the basement.” Says Peake, “she’s charming, she’s joyful, she’s funny, but she turns out to be the quirky neighbour from hell….”
“What makes her tick?” That is to be discovered in the course of Hiraeth. Cornish laughs. “There are a lot of discoveries in this play!”
“I love the idea of the friction, the wrapping something serious around a comedy … finding a way to put something rich, deep, and painful into the basket of comedy,” she says. As Edmonton audiences have discovered, that particular dexterity with the darker hues of comedy has found its way before into such Cornish comic “baskets” as Category E, a Kafka-esque comedy set in an animal testing lab. Or Little Elephants, that takes sparkling family dysfunction comedy into prickly territory. “With comedy you can plumb the (emotional) depths even more, find an even deeper bass note.”
With Hiraeth, it’s “the longing for something you can’t have … and that’s universal,” as Peake puts it. And “a comedy for two women is quite rare.” And so is a production team that except for stage manager Steven Sobolewski is all women.
Premiering a new play is a first for Bright Young Things, an indie christened for the London tabloid nickname for the artsy boho crowd of the 1920s. They’re specialists in the the vintage mid-century repertoire, rarely staged, of the last mid-century — Terrence Rattigan, Graham Green, Ionesco, Noel Coward, among them. “We’re expanding,” Cornish laughs.
But wait, actually there is a roommate from hell — OK, a roommate in hell — “comedy” in the Bright Young Things archive: Sartre’s No Exit. With Hiraeth, “a comedy with serious notes,” as Cornish describes, there is an exit, from one vision of the future to another. But you’ll have to see the show to discover what that is.
Theatre: Bright Young Things
Written by: Belinda Cornish
Directed by: Rachel Peake
Starring: Kristi Hansen and Rochelle Laplante
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: Friday through Oct. 30
Tickets and proof of vaccine requirements: varsconatheatre.com