All the usual problems that face stage adaptations of novels are on almost clinical display in David S. Young’s adaptation of Alistair MacLeod’s award-winning 1999 novel, currently having its world premiere in Toronto. Narration dominates, dialogue scenes are usually fleeting and impossible action sequences are inadequately realized. The rough-hewn splendor of MacLeod’s prose is given a thorough airing, but it doesn’t make for much dramatic impact.
Novel and play both tell the story of the MacDonald clan, from its glorious beginning in the Scottish Highlands to its North American debut as cannon fodder for General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, where England fought France for a foothold in the new world. The title, in fact, comes from Wolfe’s description of the Highlanders as “hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.”
The family settle on Cape Breton Island, in the northern part of Nova Scotia, a landscape not unlike the one they knew in Scotland.
Most of our time is spent in the final decades of the last century, and our focus rests most strongly on Alexander, the one member of the family who “got away” and now lives a placid middle-class existence as a dentist in western Ontario.
His tortured relationship with his alcoholic older brother, Calum, now spending his final days in a Toronto flophouse, serves as an engine to take us back through the family history. We learn how Alexander, Calum and their brothers were orphaned when their parents drowned in a tragic ice break-up in the frigid Atlantic waters.
Other relatives die in mining disasters, or seal their own dooms with liquor, gambling and violence. It’s a bleak landscape, but what gives it life on the page is the deep compassion of MacLeod’s writing. Young’s stage version senses the need to connect with MacLeod as much as possible, but it results in far too many sequences where characters discuss feelings rather than showing them.
Matters aren’t helped by the direction of Richard Rose, which favors the style begun by the “story theater” movement of the late 1960s and honed to a fine edge by Trevor Nunn in his RSC staging of “Nicholas Nickleby.” Against a minimalist set by Charlotte Dean (with impressive lighting from Graeme Thomson), Rose has his cast of seven play everything from barking dogs to skid row wastrels, often resorting to the kind of freeze-dried characterizations that rob a work of depth.
Understandably, there’s no way a theater of Tarragon’s size could accurately depict the breaking up of ice floes or the subterranean world of a coal mine, but Rose’s representational antics ultimately point up the futility of the whole exercise.
The cast are divided between three excellent veterans (R.H. Thomson, David Fox and Nancy Palk, who acquit themselves admirably, and four less experienced actors (Jody Richardson, Geoffrey Pounsett, Stephen Guy-McGrath and Guy Ross), who fail to be sufficiently varied or convincing. The latter group seem to have been cast largely for their skill as musicians on the abundant Celtic folk music that tries to tie the production together.
Toronto’s major legit force, Mirvish Prods., commissioned this work and put up the funds for its development. It’s hard to imagine how its execs thought this heavily literary novel would translate to the stage. The current version offers no plausible solution.