Wednesday, September 26, 2012
NO GREAT MISCHIEF
Special to TorSun
25 SEPT 2012
Pictured: David Fox, R. H. Thomson
Sometimes, great literature becomes great theatre, usually in the hands of an adaptor and a director prepared to sever the ties that bind the story to the page and set it free. In the hands of adaptor David S. Young and director David Rose, however, Alistair MacLeod's NO GREAT MISCHIEF never manages to slip those surly bonds of earth poet John Gillespie Magee Jr. immortalized and soar into a theatrical wild blue yonder over the rugged wilds of Cape Breton.
For that is where MacLeod's tale is rooted and much of it plays out, with side trips to Toronto's Spadina Avenue and its flophouses and the mines of Elliot Lake, of course. It is the tale of two MacDonald brothers — Calum, the elder, played by David Fox and Alexander, the youngest, played by R. H. Thomson, from whose perspective the story is told. And it's a long story indeed, at least in the temporal sense, stretching back to the times when General Wolfe invaded Quebec (and gave this play its name, it might be added) and the brothers' forefather, Calum Ruadh, shook the heather of Scotland from his plaids and set sail for the Maritimes.
It is a familial history fraught with tragedy, and the two brothers and their siblings do not escape its curse, orphaned when their parents and a brother fall through the ice and disappear, leaving almost no trace of their passing. Unable to support the entire crop of orphaned grandchildren, their paternal grandparents, played by John Dolan and Nicola Lipman, opt to raise young Alexander, while leaving Calum to ride herd over his siblings, creating him as the de facto head of a clan of hard rock miners in the process.
Initially, it appears Alexander will escape the hard life of his siblings, but after he graduates from dental school, he opts to join his brothers underground, putting himself in a position to bear witness to the great tragedy that will ultimately destroy Calum's life.
Although the cast is rounded out by Daniel Giverin, Stephen Guy-McGrath, J. D. Nicholson and Ben Irvine (who seems to think he's cast in a send up the '60s), carrying the story forward falls largely on the shoulders of Fox and Thomson. While each gives a quality performance, they are undone finally by a combination of their own shortcomings and a text that never really seems to leave the page. This is dialogue written for the eye, not the ear.
For his part, Thomson never quite seems to strike the right note of self-effacing humour that makes his character so appealing as a story teller, while Fox succeeds in mining the full depth of Calum's tragedy without ever really grasping the wild and youthful Highland nobility that underscores it.
A really good stage adaptation — and they do exist — makes one forget the book that spawned it, while the merely adequate serves only to make one want to read the book again. A lot of people, one suspects, will be re-reading MacLeod's glorious novel in the wake of this production.