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Nov 24/09

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page; the older reviews will move further down.

Reviewed here: Up In The Air (Movie); Antichrist (Movie); Of This Earth (Memoir); Why I Am A Catholic (Religion); Necessary Angel's Hamlet (Theatre); Erratic North (Memoir)

Up In The Air (Movie) written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner; directed by Jason Reitman; starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, Danny McBride

This has got to be one of the oldest themes in fiction: an irresponsible playboy learns his lesson. The motif extends back at least as far as Don Juan. You can probably find traces of it in Chaucer and the Bible -- if your knowledge of those sources is more extensive than mine.

Of course, we know how movies on this theme must end . No mainstream Hollywood production’s gonna tell you that it’s ok to be a superficial libertine – at least, not any movie that’s drawing in the elderly and the middle-classes the way this one is. So the only question is whether the movie makes the trip to the inevitable moral entertaining in some original way.

In this case, we have George Clooney playing Ryan Bingham, a guy who works for a firm that sends experts all over the US to handle the firing of employees for bosses who don’t have the you-know-what’s to do it themselves. Ryan’s the perfect guy for the job: he seems not to give a damn about the people he axes. Mind you, he manages to pull off the hatchet jobs with a tremendous show of sincerity. With those lustrous dark eyes bearing down on you, he almost makes you believe the clichs about how getting fired frees you for a more meaningful life.

And what’s meaningful to Ryan? Nothing really, other than jetting around the country, keeping on the go. He actually enjoys the sterility of airports and hotels. All the fussy rigmarole of flying gives him the feeling of being at home. The slick, cool style of the movie emphasizes the point, especially in an early montage of travel procedures in very quick shots: packing and closing suitcases, wheeling them along concourses, passing chip cards through metallic readers, then the security checks, etc.

This peripatetic lifestyle of Ryan’s is threatened, however, when a hot shot young colleague (Anna Kendrick) points out that their firm could save massive travel expenses by using video conferencing to do the firing. Ryan protests about the inhumanity of such a procedure. This is where the movie begins to get confusing: are his objections all about his obsession with accumulating air miles or does his suave, glib manner actually conceal a feeling for people?

Further blurring of thematic focus occurs when Ryan claims the young woman knows nothing about the actual process of firing people. Their boss (Jason Bateman) now insists that Ryan take her on the road with him before her video-firing system is implemented. So maybe we’re getting one of those screwball comedies that throws together a man and a woman who despise each other?

Questions like that interfere with a smooth ride on this flight of fancy. The turbulence causes you to start noticing other problems. The whiz kid’s suggestion for cutting travel costs is such an obvious idea that you have to wonder why nobody tried it before. Because it’s so stupid, that’s why. So why does the boss go for it all of a sudden? Does he have the hots for this young woman? Is he keen to support anything that will promote her career? No such motivation comes to light.

And then there’s a niggling question about the Clooney character. He’s supposed to be a renowned motivational speaker. People book him for important conferences where he talks about the necessity of shedding relationships that drag you down. But how come he doesn’t own his own company if he’s so famous? He has a boss who tells him when to jump and how high. Doesn’t seem like the background for such a celeb.

Along comes another little glitch. When Ryan shows up more or less spontaneously for the wedding of a younger sister (Melanie Lynskey), he finds out that his other sister (Amy Morton) has suddenly separated from her husband. That detail sticks out awkwardly – until you realize it’s a necessary plot device: when family trouble arises, Ryan’s the only adult male the woman can turn to for help.

Luckily, the acting’s so good that it almost makes you overlook these niggling problemswith theme and plot.

George Clooney has never looked better. There’s almost something obscene about the flagrant display of such extravagant male charm. If not obscene, then irritating to male viewers. An ordinary representative of the male sector of the species would be grateful to be able to manage ten percent of the wattage in that devilish smile of Mr. Clooney’s. It’s hard to think of anybody else – actor or otherwise – who could do cute and cuddly in a scenario like this: when he wakes up in bed and finds that his partner of the night before is getting dressed and leaving the hotel room, he says her sudden departure makes him feel like a whore, but, he tells her, "Just leave the money on the dresser."

His best moments come, though, when he drops the charm. Or let’s say, these are the times when it suddenly hits you that we’re dealing with a formidable actor here, not just a pretty boy. He delivers a wintry gust of calculating male authority in an early scene where he takes on the whiz kid and demolishes her in a bit of role playing where she has attempted to show how she could fire him.

Another great moment comes in the scene where he’s called in to advise in the family crisis. Ryan’s the last guy who should be dishing out home truths but George Clooney handles the job in a way that shows a human being behaving as decently as he can without being too obviously hypocritical.

Apart from the Clooney character, the only significant roles in the movie belong to two women. As a fellow traveller with whom he spends pleasurable nights in hotels, Vera Farmiga creates a fascinating, funny and beautiful woman, one with more wisdom than you might expect from somebody in that situation, plus an indefinable air of mystery.

In the role of the whiz kid, Anna Kendrick comes across, at first, as a caricature of a female dork: scrubbed skin, tight pony tail, pinched features with an aggressive mouth. But she eventually has some great scenes, especially one where she gives Ryan a piece of her mind about the way he’s treating the woman who’s sleeping with him. I couldn’t help thinking that Ms. Kendrick’s performance as the neophyte standing up to the old timer gained a lot of edge from her situation as the young, virtually unknown actor having to give back as good as she got from a megastar like George Clooney.

In the best scene of the movie, though, said megastar has nothing to do but watch. He and the Farmiga character have taken the younger woman to a bar to console her after she’s had an emotional meltdown. The two woman engage in a hilariously ironic exchange of inter-generational views about women's expectations regarding men. George Clooney sits and tracks the verbal ping-pong between the women without contributing a word. You can’t help admiring him for that, both as a character and an actor. When have you ever seen the star of a movie simply observe the lesser-known actors through a whole scene?

With so much going for it, one could wish that the movie didn’t have those bumpy passages on the journey (including some hokey, sentimental twists). As for the final destination, our anti-hero doesn’t fare quite as badly as Don Juan but there’s some satisfaction in the fact that we leave Ryan in a place that looks just right for him.

Rating: C minus (Where C = "Certainly worth watching")

 

Antichrist (Movie) written and directed by Lars von Trier; starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg

A man and woman make love in the shower. Slow motion. Black and white. Water droplets fall on them like flower petals. A plangent aria from Handel’s Rinaldo on the soundtrack. All very beautiful.

Ooops! Their infant son has crawled out of his crib. He’s making his way towards an open window....

The rest of the film is all about guilt, mostly the mother’s. She’s practically catatonic. Hubby isn’t pleased with the way the doctor’s treating her. Being some sort of therapist himself, he decides to take over her case. There follows scene after scene of the two of them: he trying to plumb the depths of her depression, she resisting. We get surrealistic enactments of her worst nightmares and phobias.

If you’re going to spend so much time watching just two people on screen, they better be pretty watchable. Willem Dafoe may be watchable, in the sense of interesting, but certainly not in the ‘pretty’ sense. Charlotte Gainsbourg isn’t as hard to look at – in the short term – but she has not been gifted with a face that conveys much on screen. In any case, she apparently belongs to the acting school that believes anything’s better than over-acting. So she holds her face in one expressionless blank throughout, her mouth hanging open. She takes at least three seconds to answer every question put to her. Maybe the pauses are meant to give the impression that there’s something happening behind her impassive mask but the time lag doesn’t liven up the viewing experience much.

Still, this is a Lars von Trier film. He has, after all, produced some fascinating ones, like Breaking the Waves and The Idiots. (We’ll pass over the insufferable Dogville.) So you think it may be worth hanging in with this one for a while.

Hubby, meanwhile, hasn’t been making much progress with wifey. Now the therapy calls for a trip to a cabin in the woods – "Eden" – a setting redolent with happy memories. It may strike you at this point that the problem with these two people is that they have too much free time. What they need is some good honest work, some meaningful responsibility. (If only they hadn’t lost that kid.) As Sister Eudocia, my grade five teacher always warned us: the devil finds a job for idle hands.

And does he ever, in this case. Once our two friends arrive in "Eden", things start to get weirder. Nature starts acting up. You begin to wonder if you’ve arrived in Alfred Hitchcock territory. Then the wife goes really freaky. Some gruesome bodily harm ensues. It’s all supposed to have something to do with her previous research on violent crimes against women. But who’s she to talk? Behaviour like hers is what gives witches a bad name.

One suspects that it’s all supposed to show something about the evil lurking deep in human nature, even in the sacred maternal instinct. Maybe we’re meant to take the scenario as a reversal of the concept of Eden, turning the archetype of idyllic nature on its head. No doubt there’s an audience for this sort of arty hocus-pocus (it’s all very beautifully photographed) but it exasperates anybody who thinks movies should show us something about real life as we know it.

Towards the end of the movie, the only remaining interest for me was to see whether the credits claimed that no animals had been harmed. A notice did appear to the effect that all animals in the film had been "handled by professional trainers and/or computerized." Then I began to think that it would have been nice to have some reassurance that no human actors had been hurt. Come to think of it, what about us viewers? Did anybody spare a thought for the harm that the movie might do to our peace of mind?

Rating: E (as in the Canadian "Eh?" i.e. iffy)

 

Of This Earth (Memoir) by Rudy Wiebe, 2006

Before this, I’d read only one of Rudy Wiebe’s books. His famous The Temptations of Big Bear (1973) was enough, though, to give me a lasting sense of him as one of Canada’s literary icons. This memoir confirms that impression. Of This Earth has the richness, the resonance and the depth that you expect from a great writer delving into childhood memories.

Born in 1934, Mr. Wiebe spent his early years on the edge of the woods of Northern Saskatchewan. There, his parents, Mennonite immigrants from Russia, eked out a hardscrabble existence on various stony farms. Rudy, the youngest of seven children (his oldest sibling was 19 years older), had a worm’s-eye-view of a life without much comfort or luxury. His frugal, hard-working parents instilled in their children solid, god-fearing values. If conditions seemed harsh at times, there was solace in company with the cohesive Mennonite community surrounding them. Sunday entertainments consisted of visiting among the families. For kids, the only recreations were the simplest of games.

The strongest impression of the memoir? Fittingly, given the title, it’s the sense of a life deeply connected to the land. From his earliest memories, you can see that the boy liked the feel of the earth between his bare toes. Much of his early life involved activity related to the basics of making a living on the land: helping with the planting and weeding, the milking of the cows, stacking firewood. A tremendous competence and a sense of responsibility ensued. Rudy seemed so at home in all of it that it comes as an amusing discovery to find out eventually that he never actually liked horses very much; he found them stubborn and uncooperative.

Even so, he handled them well. As a nine-year-old boy, he could be sent out at night on horseback to summon help for a sick sister. You can’t help but marvel at how such a childhood differs from the norm in our society today. It must have made for a wonderful upbringing: to be so useful to a family in practical ways while, at the same time, having access to books that were constantly expanding his mental world.

Not that the purpose of the memoir is to take any such supercilious position on the question of child raising. No, it’s just a ruminative meandering through the author’s early memories. Impressions – sights, sounds, tastes – in the confusing mele that is a child’s experience, without a lot of attempt to explain things in the adult way. Even the adults, as seen through this child’s eyes, appear somewhat limited in their understanding of affairs in the greater world. Take the matter of the Second World War. In the 1920s, Germany had been very hospitable to the Mennonites in their flight from Communist tyranny in Russia. But now these refugees were supposed to see Germany as the villain and Stalin as a good guy???

At times, the writing style gives pause. The author occasionally gets carried away with very long sentences (one of them 27 lines long) and you think: ok, this is where he does his rhapsodic thing. Maybe that peeves you a bit. Maybe you’d rather he stuck with a more conventional writing style. You might even find yourself grumbling about the fractured syntax and the iffy grammar of some passages.

But you gradually realize there’s an incantatory quality to the prose. The memories pour out in cadences reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ work. To appreciate that effect to the full, you almost have to read some passages aloud. Among many that glow with a burnished refulgence, one of my favourites would be a description of early morning in the barn, which contains this sentence about the cats twining around the legs of the young boy milking a cow:

Their tiny mouths opened in such delicate plaints, a sound threading into the blackness where the larger animals moved in the thick, vivid heat of their bodies, their slab-like teeth gnawing at hay or the wooden manger beams.

If there’s one quality that might limit the appeal of the book somewhat, it could be a consistently sombre tone. No matter what fun the kids get up to, a constant bass note in the background thrums on themes of struggle, departure and death. In particular, the illness of the author’s sister Helen, and her death at the age of seventeen, weaves a thread of melancholy through his early years.

Both his parents took such tragedies stoically, as firm believers in the inscrutability of God’s ways. Rudy’s father, however, tended to meet most of life’s troubles with surprisingly good cheer. It was Rudy’s mother for whom life consisted mostly of threats and problems to be wrestled with, rather than pleasures to be enjoyed. Given the tone of their youngest child’s writing, it would seem that he took his character more from her than from his dad.

While young Rudy never saw much expression of love between those two stern people, he often heard them spontaneously singing hymns together. His mother’s high soprano would sound from the kitchen and soon his dad’s tenor would be providing harmony from the yard or another room. If parents can give a kid memories like that, they’ve blessed him with something very special, even if they didn’t exactly give him the sense that life was going to be a barrel of fun.

 

Why I Am A Catholic (Religion) by Garry Wills, 2002

Having enjoyed Garry Wills’ What Paul Meant (see Dilettante’s Diary review, Nov 11/09), I was expecting something similar in this earlier volume: a brisk, clear, concise and engaging romp through some key theological concepts. Given the title of this one, I expected that it would, of course, include some discussion about how the issues impacted on the author.

The book turns out to be something quite other. The main reason is that Mr. Wills is addressing the public response to an earlier book of his, Papal Sin (2000). In that book, I gather, he laid out his argument that the papacy has practised hypocrisy and deceit down through the ages. Readers swamped him with mail, much of it asking: so why, in the light of all these papal abuses, do you remain a Catholic? The friendlier letters came from like-minded Catholics hoping he could give them reasons to hang-in. The less sympathetic letters came from Catholics urging him to get the hell out of the church and leave it to them.

The bulk of this follow-up book, then, takes great pains to show that the church, like any religious organization, is and always has been a flawed institution. And a close look at the papacy shows the church’s worst blemishes. But that doesn’t – and here’s Mr. Wills’ main point – negate its authenticity.

To begin with, the papacy isn’t quite as monolithic and permanent as people think. Forget the notion of a clear succession of popes starting with Peter, as appointed by Christ, and continuing on to the present. There wasn’t any notion of any such thing as a "pope", i.e. an overall leader of the church presiding from Rome, until some centuries after the time of Christ. In the early days of the religion that came to be known as Christianity, the important centres of the movement were in the East; Rome’s voice barely counted. Once the Roman papacy did become well established, its history was marked not so much with steady progression as with turmoil and bickering. At several points, various claimants battled for the title.

As for the characters of the popes who did manage to get themselves recognized, the picture is not reassuring. We all know that the basket included some bad apples but the extent of the depravity and chicanery laid out by Mr. Wills astonishes. "In terms of basic decency," he says, "the average president of the United States has been a better human being than the average pope." I’m not sure how you calculate an "average" when you’re dealing with people’s characters, but it’s a remarkable claim, all the same.

When it comes to the popes most of us have known best, it appears that John XXIII could do no wrong; John Paul II could do almost nothing right, apart from some important interventions in international affairs; and Paul VI dithered back and forth between doing wrong and right. A comment about John Paul II offers one of my favourite lines in the book. After mentioning that many legendary saints from the past have been struck from the lists of the canonized, Mr. Wills points out that John Paul II had such a mania for canonization that he beatified a person who probably didn’t exist.

The putative saint in question being the Mexican peasant, Juan Diego. Reports of  apparitions of the Blessed Virgin to him at Guadalupe in 1531, are based entirely on folklore. No written documentation, apart from an obvious forgery, attests to the apparitions until over a hundred years later. And that document is so riddled with piety as to be totally unreliable. Nevertheless, John Paul II couldn’t resist canonizing this Juan Diego who had done so much to promote Marian devotion. Apparently, says Mr. Wills, John Paul II seemed to think "that a refusal to be gullible shows lack of chivalry to Our Lady."

Not that the personal quirks of the popes would matter to a true believer in infallibility. But Mr. Wills points out that this belief in the popes’ absolute inerrancy on doctrinal matters was slow to come to the fore. It was being debated and challenged right up to the time it was "infallibly" defined at the First Vatican Council (1869-70). One of the most important leaders of the church at the time, John Henry Newman, didn’t support the declaration of infallibility. Obviously, then, it has not been held by the church through most of its history that Jesus imparted to Peter and his successors some irrevocable certainty on theological matters.

As for what Jesus did impart, that gets a bit tricky. Mr. Wills relies heavily here on the teaching of Saint Augustine who said it was by synecdoche, sort of, that Jesus referred to Peter as the "rock – on which I will build my church." Jesus himself was the rock; he was the foundation of the church. Peter, then, was named "Rock" by way of his connection to Jesus, you might say. As such, the leadership of Peter and his successors is meant to promote harmony and unity.

All of which is to say that Mr. Wills does not feel that any disagreement with or criticism of the pope offers a reason for leaving the church. Point taken. But far too much of the book is spent on church history in order to prove the point. In any case, this is not the best way to absorb history – skimming through the centuries, piling detail on detail. Although many fascinating tidbits crop up, we get the picture long before our minds abandon the attempt to follow all the twists and turns.

The personal material, then, is squeezed into about fifty introductory pages of autobiography and a final section of equal length in which Mr. Wills expounds on his actual beliefs.

The autobiographical section offers gossipy details about luminaries like William F. Buckley and Teilhard de Chardin. In terms of the book’s more important theme, however, we learn that the only time Mr. Wills’ faith was severely tested was during his brief seminary career as a student for the priesthood. What nearly destroyed his belief in God was a somewhat sophomoric depression in which the existence of anything looked like a pointless dream. Eventually, with the help of GK Chesterton and Thomas Aquinas, he came to a belief in God founded mainly on the miracle of being over nothingness: the fact that anything at all exists, rather than nothing, compels belief in the Creator.

In the final section, Mr. Wills lays out the details of his personal beliefs, mainly by dissecting two key texts known as "The Apostles’ Creed" and the "Our Father" (or "The Lord’s Prayer"). Here, the writing becomes somewhat poetic, mystical and numinous. Words like didache, eschaton and kerygma get thrown around. The discussion about the inner life of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – heavily relying on Augustine – involves some impressive (if not entirely accessible) cerebration. Jesus’ "descent into hell", as mentioned in the Creed, becomes – not a quick trip to an underground inferno– but something along the lines of a descent into the worst human suffering possible.

Mr. Wills adroitly stick-handles his way through inconvenient details. The virgin birth, for example, becomes "spiritual virginity" – a worthy concept, surely, but it seems to me that something more physical is indicated in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Speaking of which, Mr. Wills’ attitude to the gospels confuses me. In a case such as the one just cited, he has no qualms about dismissing the literal meaning of the text. For the most, part, though he seems to accept the testimony of the gospels without question. It is as though he were unaware of the huge body of scholarship that casts serious doubt on the historicity of almost everything recounted in the gospels. You might not expect the typical Christian to be aware of that development but you’d think a man as erudite and sophisticated as Mr. Wills would be.

Mr. Wills’ emphasis on the "Our Father" as a prayer directed to the end times struck me as a new way of looking at it. In this interpretation, the " bread" asked for is not the mundane, everyday stuff, but the feast still to come at the final heavenly banquet. The business about not leading us into temptation and delivering us from evil – phrases which have troubled many a thoughtful pray-er – also refer to the final roundup. We’re asking God to spare us from the cataclysmic confrontation with evil at the end of the world.

The best embodiment of these beliefs is found, for Mr. Wills, in the Catholic church."Even in the darkest hours of the papacy," he says, "there is more life and light within the church than in the groups that split off from it." A major subtext running through the book, then, would be: Why I Am Not A Protestant.

Mr. Wills’ elaboration of his beliefs strikes me as the kind of thing that is edifying and inspiring – if you buy the basic premise: that God came among us as a human, then suffered and died in a way that will, with certain conditions applied, lead to our eternal happiness. If you stand outside that system of belief, nothing in the book will bring you in. Maybe it’s not meant to. Perhaps my making that observation is merely a reflection of the fact that one seldom reads an enthusiastic Catholic apologist without feeling that the writer’s trying to convert you.

 

Necessary Angel’s Hamlet (Theatre) based on the play by William Shakespeare; directed and designed by Graham McLaren; starring Gord Rand, Steven McCarthy, Robert Persichini, Larua de Carteret, Benedict Campbell, Christopher Morris, Eric Peterson, Tara Nicodemo, Gray Powell; Enwave Theatre, Harbourfront Toronto; until Nov 29.

The posters for this Hamlet promise a production "seething with amorality". To emphasize the point, the photo blazoned on all the advertising shows a guy in his underpants gasping his last breaths, a plastic bag taped around his head.

So you figure you’re in for some major shocks. If the truth be told, the English teacher in you is cringing at the prospect of seeing the classic text drawn and quartered. But the hype has led you to believe that this is a theatrical experiment not to be missed, so you quell your misgivings and present yourself at the box office.

Surprise! The only shock is that the production follows the original text – albeit shortened – so closely. Granted, we get a bit of hanky-panky: a suggestion of incest, a sexual assault with a rolled up magazine, some nudity, an incident of attempted rear-entry sex (thwarted). For the most part, though, the production serves up little in the way of amorality that would look out of place in a conventional production.

Not to say that this is that. It teems with innovation, mostly by way of giving the proceedings a more contemporary spin. Hamlet wears jeans, running shoes and t-shirt. The action takes place in what is apparently a banquet hall, amidst the detritus of a party – plastic cups, smeared plates, paper strewn everywhere. A bit tawdry for a palace, you may be thinking, but the wedding festivities were a bit rushed, weren’t they?

If you’re going to mess around this way with a classic, of course, your changes should contribute some insight not so accessible in traditional versions of the work. In that respect, most of the directorial ideas in this production work splendidly.

Take the first appearance of the ghost. Instead of the typical scenario with the spooky figure appearing on the castle ramparts, Horatio and Hamlet are chatting in the banquet room, when there’s a sudden snap and fizz. The fuses have blown. After some scrambling in the dark, they locate flashlights and there, writhing on the floor is this behemoth of a dishevelled character. (Well, you wouldn’t look your best either if you’d been lying in your grave for a couple of months). Hamlet and this "ghost" of his father (Robert Persichini) get into a grappling match. Paradoxically, the physicality of the encounter emphasizes what a heavy head trip this ghost thing is for Hamlet.

Other changes, mostly in the way of up-dating, work perfectly. Polonius has electronic equipment for eavesdropping on Hamlet. Much of the background music comes from a radio that the characters turn off and on as appropriate. The ominous harmonies and rhythms sound much like what you hear in thrillers today. For the introduction of the players’ performance, though, Hamlet provides a bit of baroque fanfare on a little tape recorder. Hamlet and one of his university pals engage in some silly "frat-boy" ritual on their first meeting in Elsinore.

Some of the business has the effect of heightening the drama. When Gertrude coaches Ophelia (Tara Nicodemo) on an upcoming encounter with Hamlet, the older woman smears bright lipstick on the girl’s lips and lowers one of her shoulder straps for sexy effect. That makes Hamlet’s denunciation of female wiles in the next scene all the more pointed. Near the end of the play, Claudius tries to justify himself while staring down the barrel of a gun Laertes has trained on him.

For me, one of the most brilliant touches involves Claudius and Gertrude. The first time we see them, he’s chasing her. She’s got up in a tarty white dress and a Marilyn-Monroe-ish wig, while he’s grunting and gloating behind a gorilla mask. Not only does the ploy show that these two have a good thing going in the bedroom but there’s lingering resonance to that gorilla mask. Dignified as he may be through the rest of the play, you never quite forget the beast lurking in this Claudius.

You could, perhaps, question the relevance of some of the other novelties on display. Why, for instance, are the King, Polonius and others wearing military uniforms? Well, to begin with, it doesn’t seem unlikely that these palace heavyweights might have close ties to the military. Also, their formal garb helps to show that Hamlet, in his casual disarray, inhabits quite another space. Then what about the scene near the end of the play where he appears totally nude: sensationalism? On reflection, I don’t think so. It shows just how far Hamlet has freaked out. Think of the many prisoners (Bobby Sands et al) who have demonstrated their desperation with nudity.

As with any in-your-face production these days, there’s got to be some audience involvement. The first instance comes when Hamlet remarks that one can smile and be a villain. Suddenly, in a very meaningful way, he trains a spotlight on us audience members, scanning row after row. An uncomfortable moment for a few of my neighbours, to be sure. Then, when Hamlet’s trying to decide whether or not to kill the king, who’s kneeling at his prayers, he addresses his deliberations – should I or shouldn’t I? – to a guy in the front row. Not getting a clear answer from that audience member, he polls the rest of us: how many for killing the king now, how many not?

That’s one of the few instances of interpolations. Among others that I noticed were some word changes: "cloth" instead of "arras"; "weapon" instead of "rapier". The publicity for the show claims that it includes some spontaneous improvisations. To my eye, there didn't seem to be much room for that, given that most of the inventive gloss on the play comes without any change to the text.

Except, of course, for the considerable condensing. (The performance takes about two hours, without an intermission.) That means we don’t get any of the political stuff about Fortinbras. No "Alas poor Yorick". No grave diggers. Rozencrantz and Guildendstern are merged into one "Guildencrantz" (Gray Powell). Laertes (Christopher Morris) doesn’t appear until almost the end of the play.

Some of the re-structuring in this abridgement is very clever. We’ve barely received the news of Ophelia’s death when her body is carried in, then Hamlet kneels over it and begins his graveside speeches, whereupon Laertes bursts in. In addition to the coalescing of scenes, it seems that certain speeches are re-deployed for special effect. Hamlet’s famous "To be or not to be" comes much nearer the end of the play than in the original. The re-positioning works well. By now, Hamlet’s so strung out that suicide seems not at all improbable. Hence, the plastic bag over the head.

It would be a slight exaggeration to say that this shortening of the play improves on the work of the author. His version paints on a much broader canvas, which gives the play a certain timeless grandeur. So you lose something in the condensation. But not much. And what you gain almost makes up for the loss: a tighter focus on Hamlet’s problem. The anguish caused by the filial obligation weighing on him comes through with more intensity and urgency.

Which, of course, places even more than the usual onus on the actor playing the part. It has become fashionable now among the cognoscenti to say that the role is, in fact, unplayable at the best of times. The character’s supposedly too complex for any one human being to portray all of it convincingly. What often happens with the casting, then, is that you get a Hamlet who’s too young or too old. If he’s too young, he can’t capture all the richness and nuance of the poetry. An older Hamlet may be able to do justice to the text vocally but chances are he’s not going to be convincing as the moody university student.

Judging by his bio, it would appear that Gord Rand falls just about in the middle of the young-old spectrum. His overall effect, though, tends towards the more youthful. Mr. Rand quickly convinces as the distraught young man. The process begins the moment we enter the theatre. There he is sitting on stage, surrounded by clutter, his hair greasy and unkempt. As the theatre fills, he mopes and stares. Clearly this is a guy who’s so far down that he can’t get his act together long enough to get his Prozac prescription re-filled.

As the play progresses, though, Mr. Rand’s Hamlet turns out, when the occasion calls for it, to have a sweet and beguiling smile. But you’re never quite sure whether it’s entirely innocent, cagey or somewhat crazed. Another aspect of Mr. Rand’s performance -- his lithe, feline capering about -- suits the capricious side of Hamlet perfectly.

Capturing so many of the character’s facets, this is one the most believable Hamlet’s I’ve ever seen. If you were to translate this guy’s situation to a scenario more familiar to us, you could easily see him as some young guy you know: somebody’s son or nephew, say, who has recently dropped out of theatre school (or was maybe kicked out?), it looks like he’s been doing too many drugs, he’s having trouble with his landlord, not to mention his girlfriend, his dad died suddenly and mysteriously, and now there’s this hideous thing with his mother and his uncle. It’s all too much and he’s cracking.

Even if Mr. Rand doesn’t have the vocal resources of an Olivier or a Gielgud, he handles the major speeches very competently. His best moment, in my appreciation, comes in his speech,"What a piece of work is man." The thoughts are expressed in a wistful way, with lots of space between the lines, as though each one was coming to him in a meditative spirit. When he finally admits that such a paragon of nature cannot interest him, the effect is heartbreaking. My only disappointment regarding the delivery of Hamlet’s speeches came in his death scene. Mr. Rand rattled through the final words in throw-away style. Maybe the idea was that a guy who’s lying on the floor drawing his last breath can’t waste much effort on theatrics?

While the success of the production depends largely on the charisma of the actor in the title role, all the other actors here provide work worthy of the whole. Benedict Campbell, as Claudius, is strong and commanding in his interaction with the other characters. For some reason, though, his soliloquy addressing his guilt didn’t engage me very much. Laura De Carteret, as Gertrude, has the look of a mature, sensual woman – if too young to be Hamlet’s mother – but her conversational style made it hard to catch the poetry. At first, I wondered why Eric Peterson’s Polonius seemed so angry. Eventually, though, his attitude to Ophelia provides some explanation. Let’s say we get some hint that his are not the purest sentiments we like to see in a father towards his daughter.

The only choice in terms of the directing that looked wrong to me was the garb on Horatio. Steven McCarthy was dressed like a Redemptorist priest of old – cassock and roman collar, a long rosary dangling from his cincture. Could it be that some of Hamlet’s friends at university in Wittenberg were seminarians? Maybe. But, given that nearly everything else in this production is updated to the present, why dress this character in such antiquated garb? A seminarian today would more likely wear a leather jacket and jeans.

Whether or not it was entirely the fault of the costume or whether the actor’s performance also had something to do with it, the result was that this Horatio tended to seem decidedly dorky. Surely not the way most of us want to think of that noble soul.

 

Erratic North (Memoir) Mark Frutkin, 2008

Don’t know about you, but I often fantasize about chucking it all and heading to the wilderness to live by my wits and brawn. (Both of which are diminishing to the point that the prospect of any such fantasy’s being fulfilled has pretty well evaporated). Back in the 1970s, many of us even schemed and plotted to run off and live alone in the company of a bunch of like-minded dropouts.

So this book offers plenty of interest. During the Vietnam war, Mark Frutkin, a US draft dodger, fled to the wilds of a two-hundred acre property in Quebec, about an hour north of Ottawa. Sometimes, he lived an eremetical existence during his nine years there, but a ragtag group of hippies eventually joined him to found a sort of commune.

Much of Mr. Frutkin’s description of that life is richly satisfying. We get very evocative passages about: building a sweat lodge, watching the Northern Lights, making maple syrup, baking bread, gardening and even battling fleas. Lore about birds and bears rings very true. Mr. Frutkin also does an excellent job of presenting the character of the brooding, earthy Louis Drouin who sold the property to the young people. One entertaining set piece deals with a frightening bust by the RCMP who, it turned out, had descended on the farm on the basis of suspicions that were completely misconstrued.

However, the book disappoints in some ways. So many of them, in fact, that it comes as something of a puzzle, to someone unfamiliar with Mr. Frutkin’s work, to learn that his novels and poetry have won prestigious prizes and been short-listed for several others. The quality of the writing in this book doesn’t consistently measure up to such standards.

First, there are bothersome issues of style and diligence. On one page, for instance the metaphorical use of the word "turned" appears twice: "the bureaucratic machine turned in its inexorable drive..." and, further down, "...the wheels of bureaucracy turned in their slow, persistent way." That, however, may just be an oversight.

Somewhat more troubling are the occasions when the author reaches too hard, producing a strained effect. Regarding a nighttime bonfire, he says: "Sparks from the fire would fly up into the black in a vain attempt to become stars themselves." About some wasps hanging around outside a church, the author offers up this far-fetched thought: "Perhaps they were lost souls who had once missed a Sunday Mass generations ago and were now trying to find a way in to seek forgiveness."

Banalities sometimes lower the tone further. For instance, we’re told that a fire on a winter night can provide "a feeling of home and security" and in the next paragraph, we learn that: "Fire had its sinister, wild side, as well." Do we really need a prize-winning writer to tell us about these two aspect of fire?

Another problem with the book is the inclusion of prosaic swatches of information. A three-page section on the meaning of "Wilderness" (references to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau, Simon Schama et al.) feels like an earnest attempt to brush up on the subject for a school assignment. A history of communes doesn’t come across as any more lively. Although it’s interesting to learn that those huge boulders lying around on the Canadian Shield are known as "erratics", most of the geological information is dry and dull.

Given Mr. Frutkin’s reasons for coming to Canada, you’d think it would be a good idea to include some history about draft dodgers and war resisters. But what's provided in that line doesn't sit very well here. When Mr. Frutkin tells us about the assassination that started the First World War, you have to wonder who he thinks he’s addressing. (Must admit, though, that one historical detail startled me: the Irish immigrants in New York city rioted in protest against the draft that would have them fighting to end slavery; the Irish were afraid that emancipated slaves might take the low-paying jobs from them.) A section on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall sounds like boilerplate from a tourist brochure. Napoleon’s ignominious retreat from Russia doesn’t seem to have much relevance even if the author tries to compare it to the US departure from Vietnam.

Much of the problem with that kind of material is that the author’s voice is missing; his personal connection to the subject matter doesn’t come through. We do get some of that in the story of his grandfather, a Jew who escaped being drafted into the Czar’s army in Russia in the early part of the 20th century. But even here, the link to the main story feels tenuous. The inescapable impression is that the author brings in this additional lore because he doesn’t have enough information about his own wilderness experience to fill a book.

When he does regale us with descriptions of that life, the structuring of the material is maddeningly haphazard. Chronology is handled so sporadically, that it’s difficult to get a sense of what happened when. Scattered willy-nilly throughout the book, in no particular order, are key details about the author’s receiving his draft notice, his being examined by the draft board, his decision to flee to Canada, the actual crossing of the border, buying his property, then applying for landed immigrant status. Once settled at the farm, at times he’s living alone, at times surrounded by people who have built their own dwellings on the property. There’s no sense as to how it all developed. It’s not until one of the last sections that we get any mention of one of the most intriguing questions about the whole affair: the legal and financial complications of the multiple ownership of the commune.

As for those various owners, their  characters never come through very clearly. As a result, the names of certain commune members can crop up in an anecdote without our remembering who those people are. (Granted, it may be difficult – and legally tricky – to give full-blooded characterizations of people with whom you may have had, and possibly still have, contentious issues.) The reunion of the various commune members thirty years later fizzles for the reader because we scarcely know any of them well enough to care about seeing them again.

A collection of short pieces, the book is divided into ten sections labelled as "Parts" (i.e. chapters?), each containing as few as three pieces or as many as thirteen. As far as I can see, no clear reason – artistic or logical – underlies the groupings. It feels as though the author simply jotted down memories as they came to him, then shuffled them into a book. Perhaps the idea was to create the effect of a rambling, spontaneous stroll through the author’s memories.

One can see the appeal for a writer in that approach. It obviates the difficult work of providing a narrative with a coherent structure. But some such work would have helped to make a more satisfying experience for the reader.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com