Saturday, February 14, 2015

let me count the ways...
How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of everyday’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.
sonnett XLIII 
from Sonnets from the Portuguese
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

In a world of spoken word, performance poetry, storytelling, slam poetry, hip hop, rap and countless other literary and musical genres that take the alphabet and turn it into something simultaneously visceral, elegant, and glorious, we sometimes lose the sense of poetry from other eras as something that was always meant to be heard and performed - even if that act of aural performance is an event we only experience in our heads.

The current Canadian Rep Theatre production of Florence Gibson MacDonald's How do I love thee? - at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs - provides audiences with a wonderful aural and visual experience as two infamous poet/lovers are brought to the stage to recite their lives in beautiful dialogue and haunting verse.

When Irene Poole, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning recites How do I love thee, she delivers it with such simplicity and grace that it moves beyond the measured sonnet form and into a kind of eloquent,  passionate, and insular conversation with her lover and her audience. Joined by a remarkable ensemble, with Matthew Edison as Robert Browning, Nora McLellan as Wilson, and David Schurmann as John, this brilliant quartet assemble a beautiful 'spoken-word' play that chronicles the troubled lives of these famous English poets.
Barrett Browning was the first woman to be nominated for the position of poet laureate in England and lost out to Tennyson. But her work lives on with as much power and magnitude as any of the Victorian poets we still cherish today. Other aspects of Brownings life are examined as we discover her interest in genderless culture when she speaks of her young sons hair and clothing, defnding the child's appearance against his fathers wishes to see him dressed more like a boy.

On a 'higher' note, Elizabeth's dependence on drugs such as laudanum and morphine become a discourse around the timeworn notion that artists need inspriation in whatever way they can ifnd it - and when they find it in mood enhancing substance does that become a thwarted sense of their true identity as people and as poets? Florence Gibson MacDonald gives no easy answers as she captures the volatile and profound romantic bond between the couple during their time in Italy in the mid 1800's. In How do I love thee? all poetic writing, however fictional, becomes, in part, a version of the struggles felt by the poets in their daily lives.

Nora McLellan as Barrett Brownings servant brings a strong, biting, and engaing subservience to the role of Wilson - all the time making one wonder how this intense level of devotion found its way to a poet's work that she claimed to barely understand - but she defended her mistresses poetry to the death.

David Schurmann's understated performance as John culminates in a very subtle and moving expression of same sex desire that moves the overall piece into contemporary thought around the taboos surrounding platonic devotion and romantic inter-generational love. 

Sets by Shawn Kerwin produce a grand meta-theatrical tone at the outset - with vertical sections of beautiful  flowing trunk-like forms, fashioned from shaped fabric from floor to ceiling - providing separate playing spaces for the action to dramatically unfold within. Orignal music and sound design by Wayne Kelso punctuates and enhances the succession of scenes, giving the events a nostalgic cinematic tone that moves the players through time and space with elegance, majesty, and intrigue.

It is no small feat to take romantic poetry from another era and put it on stage in an effective and theatrical manner. Ken Gass has directed his cast with bold strokes and daring declamatory poses that take some getting used to in act one, but - for the most part - are carried out beautifully throughout as Matthew Edison and Irene Poole give us a glimpse of what it might have been like to be - respectively (and in no particlulr order) - high, in love, in conflict, and able to write poetry whenever the spirit moved you in the bright Italian sun during difficult social and poltical times. 


Barrett Browning's polticial leanings are also highlighted throughout, to the distress of her frequently grumpy and economically concerned life partner Robert. Lizzie's drugs were expensive! But she rises above her dependencies, carves out a career of her own, and gives the female agency of the play a dominant positon as she grapples with the male power structures that may have steered the times, but did not survive wihtout the passion, the profound social innovation, artistic output, and creative genius of Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself.


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