Reviewed by James Karas
The Shaw Festival commissioned a play by Michel Marc Bouchard and it premiered at the Royal George Theatre with considerable fanfare. The play is called The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt. The blurb in the Festival’s brochure promises a play about “the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt and her controversial performances in Quebec City at the turn of the 20th century.”
Ric Reid, Darcy Gerhart, Fiona Reid, Andrew Bunker and Ben Sanders. Photo by David Cooper.
Truth in advertising is a highly lauded and frequently breached virtue. In this case the Shaw Festival has taken us for a small ride on one of those smelly horse drawn carriages, perhaps. The Divine does have a Bernhardt character but the play is decidedly not about the actress but about and an indictment of the Catholic Church and working conditions in Quebec about a hundred years ago.
In fairness, I should note that the title refers to a play for Sarah Bernhard (which is what one of the characters in the play wants to write) but telling us that the play is about her is simply misleading. The play’s title in French is La Divine Illusion.
Bouchard uses Bernhardt’s visit to Quebec City as a plot device to describe a corrupt church and a society where children are sexually abused, workers are treated like slaves and the Church dominates all aspects of life including what plays people are allowed to see.
Michaud (Ben Sanders) and Talbot (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) are seminarians in Quebec’s Grand Seminary. They are from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Michaud is the son of the minister of finance; Talbot comes from a desperately poor family where his 12-year old brother and his mother work in a shoe factory to pay for his education.
Michaud loves the theatre. Bernhardt is visiting Quebec City and, ironically enough, the Archbishop orders Michaud and Talbot to deliver a letter forbidding her to appear on stage. The Archbishop objects to the play.
Bernhardt is played by Fiona Reid, a superb comic actress. She has a marvelous lilt in her voice and her body language, from shaking her arms to moving her hips are the work of an outstanding talent. Bernhardt’s lines in the play indicate the actions of a star, a “divine” who is imperious and full of herself. That is not the type of Bernhardt that Reid gives us and she is miscast or misdirected for the role.
Wade Bogert-O’Brien and Ben Sanders. Photo by David Cooper.
Ben Sanders is full of enthusiasm and passions, especially about the theatre and writing a play about the poor for Bernhardt. Bogert-O’Brien is the poor boy who wants to break away from his class and become a priest. In the middle is Brother Casgrain (Martin Happer), the straight-laced keeper of the faith and defender of the Church.
The story of horrific abuse of a child by a pedophile is revealed. The brutal conditions in a shoe factory where Talbot’s 12-year old brother Leo (Kyle Orzech) and mother (Mary Haney) work is disclosed. Ric Reid as the Boss trains his workers to say they are happy and defends his abuse with alacrity. Only two workers have died in recent memory from their hair being caught in the machinery!
Although there are flashes of humour in the play, Bouchard cannot restrain himself from making the story melodramatic, preachy and simply over-the-top. It is positively Dickensian in its plucking at the heartstrings.
Jackie Maxwell, the Festival’s Artistic Director, commissioned, directed and dramaturged the play in Linda Gaboriau’s translation. She deserves great praise for promoting a Canadian playwright writing on a Canadian subject of very significant historical and current importance. The abuse of children by clerics is a continuing problem and an issue that the Catholic Church has barely begun to address.
It’s too bad that Bouchard uses such a heavy hand to tell a great story of inhumanity and injustice. ______
The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt by Michel Marc Bouchard opened on July 24 and will run in repertory until October 11, 2015 at the Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.