Characters Come Alive in Lavinia

Hayley Moorhouse here – again! This time I’m talking about Surreal SoReal Theatre’s production of Lavinia, playing at the 2015 Canoe Festival. If you like my writing, you can hear more of it at the Citadel Theatre’s Young Playwriting Company Readings (happening in June). Or, for an infinitely more disappointing experience, you can follow me on twitter.

Something a very wise acting teacher said to me last semester: “Every single woman Shakespeare ever wrote… was Queen Elizabeth.”

Meaning what? Well, meaning that Juliet’s unquenchable passion – that was Queen Elizabeth. Hermione’s stately integrity? Queen Elizabeth. Katherina’s “shrewish” hotheadedness? Yep, Lizzy again. Good old William Shakespeare was so fond of his literary ladies he made each of them a fractional queen. Isn’t that nice?

Well, maybe not. Ask Lavinia, the titular character of Jon Lachlan Stewart’s newest creation, and I’m sure she’d have a lot to say about that.

Lavinia, written by Stewart and directed by Georgina Beaty, transports a mishmash of some of the Bard’s most ill-used characters into a contemporary setting, where a well-edited vlog can be just as deadly as a floating dagger. Foul-mouthed, riotously angry and brutally maimed, Lavinia recounts the attack on her friend Silvia by the insistently well-meaning Proteus (from Two Gentlemen of Verona, if you’re keeping track). Lavinia, hailing herself from Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, Titus Andronicus, knows all too well what it is to be silenced by men, and so becomes hell-bent on revenge, and more importantly, self-narration.

In a virtuoso performance of enormous empathy, the lone actor Stewart uses wigs (by Alice Norton) and simple costume changes to embody Lavinia, as well as the problematic Proteus, who is so aware, and so convinced of his unspoilt conscious, one can’t help but begrudgingly understand his perspective. Perhaps it is a “he-said-she-said” narrative, but it’s a wonderfully challenging one. Although Stewart creates a nuanced and deeply authentic depiction of Lavinia, the fact of a male actor telling a female character’s story – as was done on the stages of Elizabethan England – is never hidden. In fact, it is Lavinia’s most fascinating and complicated element. It’s intentionally troubling, bizarrely funny and frankly, hard to shake from the mind.

So let’s think about this. Certainly, this modern day Lavinia, who’s “all about solutions”, has an advantage over her 17th century counterpart in that she has a platform to speak openly about the injustices she and her friends have faced. Moreover, audiences have – theoretically, at least – evolved to a point where they are just as interested in her story as that of Titus himself. And what about Proteus? Well, he is certainly never a hero in this new work (not even close), but he doesn’t just stonily proclaim his own, unearned innocence either; Stewart gives him the room to question his actions, his beliefs, and his responsibilities to those he holds dear. But then there’s Silvia… whose voice we never actually hear. Lavinia and Proteus relay (sometimes conflicting) snippets of what she says, but her delicate blond wig is never attached to a working mouth. So who is she? One of William Shakespeare’s queens? Or one of Jon Lachlan Stewart’s heroines? Or is she on her way to belonging not to an author, but to herself?

Surreal SoReal’s workshop production feels unfinished – but this is to its credit, I think. After all, like Lavinia says, “I don’t like happy endings. They’re suspicious”. What drives the play is Lavinia’s relentless search for her own voice. Her growing defiance, desperation and deviance as she is dismissed again and again are infinitely watchable. She is a character caught between theatrical tradition and innovation, victimization and vindication, and fiction and reality. And while Stewart has the task of embodying Lavinia, he is also in many ways a privileged audience member. When he takes off the wig, he steps back and joins the crowd in their astonishment and admiration as this centuries old character finally takes her first hesitant, knock-kneed steps toward controlling her own identity.

  • Hayley

Tickets and Information can be found at canoe2015.com

Lavinia has two remaining shows:

February 1 @ 2:00 pm

February 1 @ 8:00 pm

All performances take place in the PCL Studio Theatre at the ATB Financial Arts Barns

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