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Sep. 21, 2019 | Saturday
Editorials and Opinions
Review: Victory a fine companion piece to Godot
Tom McCamus as Charles Stuart with the cast of Victory (Shaw Festival, 2019). (David Cooper/Supplied)

REVIEW BY MIKE KEENAN, SPECIAL.

Warnings preceding the production reminded me of Disney’s “Space Mountain,” a dark, indoor, roller coaster encountered in 1977 replete with signage suggesting caution for heart patients. What one should read beforehand are the instructive program notes, particularly “Four Decades Since Writing Victory,” by Howard Barker himself.

He explains his craft as “theatre of catastrophe,” tragedy that stems from emotion, the darkness “neither depressing nor pessimistic, for pain is in life and can never be separated from it. The dramatic crisis rests in this — what can be made of our pain?”

“Victory” is a visceral experience from the onset with the arrival of King Charles II (Tom McCamus) with cronies who spit bawdy adolescent epithets. It’s instinctive, animalistic and primitive, and leads to the final scene wherein Barker pays homage to Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot.” Puritan widow Martha Burns (Bradshaw) leads Tom Rooney’s Ball, a broken cavalier, attached by rope around his neck, similar to Becket’s Act I with Pozzo driving Lucky ahead of him, a rope around his neck. The only prop that’s missing – a whip, but Burns does carry a newborn, a symbol the audience must decipher. Hope? Humanity? Or more pain?

Tim Carroll deserves full marks for directing this creative production, unlike any I have ever seen with touches of brilliance throughout, like thunderous lightning that briefly illuminates.

A case in point – a dark, gloomy foray into the vaults of the Bank of England, the audience compelled to transfer to this intriguing set located one flight below the stage, by candlelight, we realize who actually controls affairs of state – bankers and bureaucrats who chant a ritualistic oath and utter the Latin phrase, semper fidelis, “always faithful,” a motto for towns, families, schools and military units.

The intemperate group indulges themselves by fondling bars of gold and casually decides not to restrict the cavaliers from their reign of terror because they need to blow off steam after a 10-year civil war. One remembers Vietnam’s My Lai massacre as a result.

Carroll’s impressive cast is rock solid, but the play belongs to Burns, who reminds me of Gaia, Greek ancestral mother of all life, the primal Mother Earth goddess who is physically and emotionally ravaged by friend and foe alike and yet survives, her comfort and compassion amazing to behold.

McCamus, a Stratford veteran, blessed with a booming voice, picks up where he left off with Shaw’s 2017 “Madness of King George III.” His brilliant portrayal of monarch Charles Stuart reminded me that nothing has changed since the 1600s. He is carnal, vengeful, sadistic, proud and petty – much like a certain current world leader.

Other Stratford heavyweights are equally gifted in this talented tour de force. Rooney as Ball, a cavalier, undergoes an astonishing transformation from lusty, belligerent bully to literally a broken man. Sarah Topham, a court mistress, explores remarkable range from a haughty and affected favourite to a shattered woman afflicted by forced marriage and a miscarriage. (Yes, Barker’s symbols run rampant.)

Shaw regulars are equally dazzling. Gray Powell’s robust voice, second only to McCamus, excels as the conniving banker, Hambro. Patrick Galligan as Scrope, terrific as a cowardly faithful servant who longs to be unfaithful. Sanjay Talwar’s poet laureate, Clegg, an exquisitely foppish composer of verse.

Designer Rachel Forbes vividly depicts 17th-century England with few props, the costumes and wigs stunning, Burns’ black and white Puritan dress contrasting between court frivolity and outside harsh reality. Original music and a soundscape by Claudio Vena, and lighting by Kevin Lamotte complement the set and costumes. The staging is flawless.

At the end, all that remains is the bag of her husband’s bones carted by Burns à la Sisyphus, and the audience briefly applauds its seemingly own mortality, devoid of the cast long since departed.

I thought everyone should see Beckett’s Godot. Now there’s a companion piece by Barker. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

“Victory” plays at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre until Oct. 12.

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