Shalom Life | July 25, 2014

Shaw Festival Review: THE SEA

The Sea is a well acted, interesting play that at times tries too hard to make a point we know all too well.

By: Hermine Steinberg

Published: July 23rd, 2014 in Culture » Stage » Reviews

Last week I took a trip to “The Sea”, one of the Shaw Festival’s small theater offerings. Playwright Edward Bond has been referred to as “An iconoclast of modern British drama and one of Britain’s greatest living contemporary dramatists”. So who am I to argue with theater experts? The problem is that although I applaud Bond’s intentions and believe his themes are even more relevant today than when he wrote it in 1973, I don’t believe it has stood the test of time as a masterful metaphor or even a profound exploration of alienation and violence.

The Sea is set in a small seaside village in Edwardian England in 1907. It is an interesting blend of farce, social satire and poetic tragedy. Unfortunately, it does not shock or engage the audience as it once did and therefore often feels a bit superficial and trite. The story begins one night when the community is shaken by a violent storm. Two young men are desperately struggling to stay alive when their boat overturns. Willy makes it to shore and tries to get help to save his friend Colin but the only two people on the beach that night are a drunk and a coastguard that is mad and terrified, believing that Willy is an alien who is invading earth. The rest of the story revolves around the people who are left to grieve the loss of Colin, and a town that serves as a microcosm of the larger class injustices that have alienated and entrapped its citizens, causing many of them to become irrational and self-absorbed.

Bond stated in a recent interview that “If my plays are acted properly, they are affirmative of humanness.” He can rest assured that this production is in the hands of particularly gifted actors and director . Eda Holmes successfully uses the small space she has to create eight well crafted scenes. However, the metaphor of the sea – ever changing and unyielding - in the form of long blue drapes (also referencing a scene in the draper’s shop) manipulated by the actors began to look like a bad Saturday Night Live skit. Despite this distraction, the audience is treated to some of the best performances of the Shaw this season.

Patrick Galligan plays Hatch, the draper , whose livelihood has been destroyed by the callous and arrogant aristocrat, Mrs. Rafi. His fear of an uncertain future combined with his anger transform into an absurd but unwavering belief that aliens have arrived to enslave the human race. Galligan’s stellar performance as the tragic Mr. Hatch dramatically reveals the hate monger as victim, as terrorist, as oppressor and oppressed all into one – a relevant and important lesson in a time of increasing violence and decreasing consensus about how to move forward.

Mrs. Rafi, the town matriarch, is Fiona Reid who captures the multi-faceted character who believes it is her burden to rule over the town, often confusing their best interests with her sense of order and satisfaction. She is a master of nuance, able to communicate more clearly with a glance or shift in posture than many are able to with a lengthy monologue. Her comic timing is impeccable.

Wade Bogert-O’Brien plays the young embattled survivor of the storm, Willy Carson, who is searching for closure and salvation. His strong stage presence allows him to deliver an effectively understated performance in The Courthouse’s intimate space. However, he fails to create the passion or chemistry needed between him and Julia Course as the grieving fiancé of Colin to make the ending believable or even understandable.

Patty Jamieson is Mrs. Rafi’s put upon and resentful ‘side kick’, Jessica Tilehouse. She masterfully delivers some of the funniest moments in the play.

Evens, the drunk who lives on the beach, serves as Bond’s philosopher and jester. Peter Millard’s portrayal of the social outcast is a bit too subdued for my liking, and shares profundities with Willy near the end of the play as if he were reading a recipe from the back of a Campbell’s soup can. But perhaps however Millard would have delivered those lines, they would have felt preachy and trite.

The Sea may have been set in 1907 but was written in reaction to World War Two; the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the rise of Fascism. Bond wrote and was part of a wave of social protest against injustices created as a products of inequalities and prejudice. Using shock and awe, he tried to encourage audiences to reflect and demand change. Today, consumerism is the opium of the people and acts of terrorism are justified as legitimate means of protest. We live in a world of excess and extremism, graphic violence and sexuality, and the contradictions Bond wanted to expose are now regular fodder for reality TV. The growing gap between rich and poor, the cult of celebrity and class (who would have thought that Royal couples would continue to be placed on pedestals and their every move watched in the 21st century?), and our general complacency while knowing that our planet and its very survival is at a tipping point is the real world we live in. It is no longer a surprise or even a “wake up call” when we identify ourselves in Bond’s play. To one extent or another, we are all the delusional draper driven to a kind of madness by our world spinning out of our control. And what would have appeared eccentric or frightening in 1973 is just another day in 2014 – over one third of people today believe aliens have landed and the majority believe in demonic possession. Really not surprising as these beliefs are much easier to embrace than accepting we are to blame for the ills of the world and therefore have a responsibility to actually do something about it. And as Bond has recently stated, with only 80 people controlling the majority of the world’s resources, and the rest of us being sold a vision that is inherently self-destructive and exploitive, does it really make a difference whether we believe aliens are here to enslave us or corporations are willing to sacrifice us for continued profitability. Same difference.

The Sea is a well acted, interesting play that at times tries too hard to make a point we know all too well. Without the original controversy or shock associated with Bond in the past, it lacks the vigour or depth that would make it truly thought provoking or authentically a black comedy. As it was written in 1973, unlike Shaw or his contemporaries who were ‘foreshadowing’ a future based on social issues of their time, Bond fails to provide us a new perspective or a path toward a better future. Unlike Willy and Rose, we can’t just catch the next train out of Dodge.

Hermine Steinberg is a young adult/children’s author and high school teacher living in Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Her novel, The Co-Walkers: Awakening, is now available. For more information, visit www.cowalkers.com.

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