Matthew Edison and Irene Poole. Photos by John Lauener
Reviewed by James Karas
How Do I Love Thee? is a dramatic and moving play about the lives of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning in a well-acted production by Canadian Rep Theatre. It is now playing at the Berkeley Upstairs Theatre.
Elizabeth’s sonnet How Do I Love Thee? is one of the finest expressions of Eros in English and the lives of the two poets, passionate, forbidden, idealized love, has become legendary.
Florence Gibson MacDonald takes a realistic view of the marriage and if Elizabeth loved Robert as the sonnet says “to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach” everyday life was considerably less happy and transcendent.
The play has four characters, Elizabeth (Irene Poole), Robert (Matthew Edison), the servant Wilson (Nora McLellan) and John (David Schurmann). The play takes place in England where the two poets meet through correspondence and in Florence where they escape after Elizabeth’s father disowns and disinherits his daughter as a mark of his disapproval of her marriage.
MacDonald’s Elizabeth is a strong and passionate woman with robust sexual desires. You can put aside any notions of Elizabeth being a sickly recluse. She is devoted to writing but she does have a problem. She is addicted to various drugs such as opium.
Robert is presented as a passionate young man who has a serious writer’s cramp as a result of his unhappy domestic life.
And they do have their problems. Drugs are expensive and all their money is spent on the pharmacy. She spends much of her time in bed; he can’t write. Domestic squabbles follow with increasing ferocity. This is a long way from “I love thee to the level of everyday’s/ Most quiet need, by sun by candlelight.”
Matthew Edison makes a superb Robert. He descends from the heights of love (mostly through letters, before they meet) to squabbling over money and domestic arrangements to trying to wean her from her addictions. Edison can’t quite produce an English accent but he rises to the emotional heights of the play and you quickly forget his pronunciation.
Poole’s Elizabeth is attractive, strong, devoted to her writing and in need of addictive drugs perhaps as a crutch or a necessary ingredient for her inspiration. She writes because she loves writing whereas Robert wants to publish her poems so they can pay their bills. Poole’s performance is excellent and she lets us see the great writer and the pathetic human being in a marriage for which she sacrificed all and got very little.
Nora McLellan as the faithful servant Wilson is stone-faced, intelligent and humane. Her life is devoted to serving Elizabeth and she stands her ground and defends her mistress with finesse and bravery. A fine performance by McLellan.
John is a cousin of Elizabeth and the person who introduces the two poets. Schurmann is dressed like a stuffy Victorian but his John is observant, intelligent, decent and a fine go-between.
The set by designer Shawn Kerwin consists of a desk and an ottoman where the poets write and sleep. There are three columns of raw marble in the background. The characters are on stage throughout, simply sitting at the back of the stage when they are not participating in the action.
The play is highly literate, dramatic and moving as we see “real” life and compare it with the sentiments of the title.
A round of applause goes to Ken Gass for his outstanding directing of the play. Another ovation is for his establishment of the Canadian Rep Theatre last year but that is another story.
How Do I Love Thee? by Florence Gibson MacDonald opened on January 31 and will run until February 22, 2015 at the Berkeley Upstairs Theatre, 26 Berkeley St.
Toronto, Ontario. 416 368-3110. www.canadianrep.ca