Reviewed by James Karas
*** (out of five)
No Great Mischief is the title of a novel by Alistair MacLeod which was adapted for the stage by David S. Young. It opened at the Tarragon Theatre in November 2004 and it is the opening production of the same company’s current season.
Despite Young’s brave attempts to make the adaptation entertaining, I found it a generally uninspiring night at the theatre. There were many reasons for the failure to generate much excitement or even small pleasure at the production.
Young tries to maintain some of MacLeod’s prose by having a narrator who is also the main character of the play. You end up with some scenes that are re-enacted and described at the same time. In other words we have both narrative and action where neither is satisfactory.
I have a general antipathy to the adaptation of novels for the stage. The novelist’s prose style, narrative method and descriptive passages go mostly by the board and you may end up with only the highlights of the plot. Sometimes that is the equivalent of getting a skeleton when you are looking for flesh and blood. Adaptations work when the playwright can create an almost new work based on the novel and maintain some fidelity to the original. Young attempts that in this adaptation but with only limited success.
The central “character” of the play is the MacDonald Clan of Scotland. The clan has a long history and memory reaching back to the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The main part of the story, however, begins with the arrival in Canada of Calum Ruadh in 1779.
The play opens with dentist Alexander MacDonald (R.H. Thomson) visiting his alcoholic brother Calum (David Fox) in Toronto. Young mixes action and narration as Alexander describes what is happening while being a part of it. This happens throughout the play, as I mentioned, and I found it unsatisfactory. If you want the narrative and MacLeod’s fine prose, you can stay home and read the novel.
The play moves down memory lane to Cape Breton where the MacDonald Clan grew after Ruadh’s immigration and to the move to the mines of Elliot Lake, Ontario. The MacDonalds like to sing, dance, drink to excess and get into trouble. A couple of violinists appear on stage frequently and music is ever present in the play.
Aside from the two brothers in this well-peopled play, we have Grandpa played by John Dolan and Serious Grandpa played by J.D. Nicolson. Ben Irvine plays the major roles of Cousin Alexander and California Cousin and Nicola Lipman plays all the women in the play. Daniel Giverin and Stephen Guy-McGrath play half a dozen roles each.
The set consists of a painted wall and six chairs. The actors, when not involved in a scene tended to stand facing the wall at the back of the stage and at one point they looked as if they were urinating.
The play shows/narrates some dramatic scenes in the lives of the MacDonalds from a drowning, to a killing of a miner. There is singing (much of it in Gaelic) and dancing and some noisy sections all of which made a surprisingly limited impression. Some of the actors spoke in a clipped manner (I can’t really describe it as an accent) that forced you to sit up and listen carefully to follow what they were saying.
At the beginning of the play, Alexander tells us that the story of the MacDonalds is part memory, part imagination or family history elevated to myth. I think that Young and Director Richard Rose have failed to raise the play to the mythical or to create a mythical world for the Canadian part of the clan.
The title of the play comes from a remark about the MacDonald Clan made by Major General James Wolfe during The Battle of Quebec in 1759. He wrote that “they are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to rough country and no great mischief if they fall.” He may have meant it as a compliment or, more likely, as an expression of contempt towards the people he used as cannon fodder. To put it in perspective, the MacDonalds were considered less important than the dogs to the English.
Worse was to come. Two members of the mythical clan whose life and adventures Young tries to bring to life on stage were returning to Cape Breton in the 20th century and were stopped by a Causeway Policeman. He asked who they were.
“We are MacDonalds,” answered one of them said proudly.
“The guys who make the hamburgers?” asked the Policeman.
With some highly talented actors in the cast, the play is not a hamburger but it fails to do justice to the great clan.______
No Great Mischief. by David S. Young adapted from the novel by Alistair MacLeod opened on September 19 and will run until October 23, 2012 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave.