A couple of years ago, David Wayne McKay wrote, directed and acted in a one-act play, Sector 8. Set in a post-apocalyptic society, it pitted defiant resistance fighters for justice against the regimented thugs of tyranny. My review commented that the characters speechified too much in long meandering patches of unneeded exposition when the writer/director might have concentrated on the more dramatically interesting story of love and betrayal at the heart of the story.
Now, in a three performance run (Oct. 24, 25, 26) at the UCCB Boardmore Playhouse (and as part of the UCCB Dramagroup’s 27th Season of Plays), David Wayne McKay directed a mammoth, four-hour production of The Flies, Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential reworking of the Greek myth of Orestes.
Sartre had a cold genius which might be expected from the writer of No Exit (“Hell is other people”). So, in The Flies, we see the citizens of Argos self-consumed with guilt for their complicity in the murder of King Agamemnon and suffering under an apocalyptic visitation of voracious flies. Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, returns home after many years as a wandering exile, and finds his mother, Clytemnestra, married to his father’s killer, Aegistheus. Orestes’ sister, Electra, has been nursing bloody dreams of her brother’s return to revenge their father by murdering his killer and their mother. Zeus, the ruling Greek god who has been shadowing Orestes and does not want Agamemnon’s murder avenged, warns the brother and sister they cannot defy his law (the law of the universe) and escape the consequences. They proceed with the murder anyway, but Electra falters, submits to Zeus’ dominion, and abandons her brother. Orestes, a genuine existential hero, claims humanity’s right to stand alone against the universe and proudly exits pursued by Furies.
It is a primal Greek myth (the big three Greek tragedians Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschyles all wrote their own versions of the tale) and one not likely to be made into a Disney musical very soon (or has it already? If you count Hamlet as an Elizabethan retelling of Orestes and see The Lion King as the cute and cuddly bastardization of Hamlet . . . ah, the circle of life.)
If this play is interpreted as Sartre’s response to France’s shamefully compliant occupation by the Germans during World War II (compliant to the point of French officials willingly helping the Nazis in their genocide against the Jews) then obviously The Flies would have had a more emotional and moral impact on its audience when it was first written when the catastrophe was still in mid-explosion. But, while France is still just coming to terms with its wartime sins (and a production there of this play would still be topical), what about a Cape Breton audience for whom the terrible events that fired Sartre’s play are suppertime viewing on History TV – as a dramatic rebuke to humanity’s all too easy submission to tyranny is The Flies still effective drama?
Well, along with the passion and fear and dread of the original myth, Sartre gives us speech after speech after speech. Abstract philosophical points are discussed and debated and then, for the most part, discussed and debated again. And then again… Characters constantly and annoyingly describe events and people that the audience can see for themselves on stage and nobody says anything in a sentence (Zeus forbid a gesture or an action) that they can declaim in a bombastic chapter. Not any help at all is the tin-eared, uncredited translation that sounded at times like the subtitles of an Italian gladiator movie.
So, if this didactic and underdramatized script has to be produced at all, then for everybody’s sake – the overworked actors, the unsuspecting audience and Sartre’s reputation as an important writer – more than a little judicious editing is in order.
That said, in assembling a huge cast and crew of almost eighty, using projected images and film montage, an original score and original choreography, McKay showed tremendous growth in his skills as a director. If the play was still an endurance test for the audience, it was because Sartre’s play would have taxed the resources of the most experienced director.
McKay brought a sense of immediacy to a pivotal crowd scene where Aegistheus, with his collaborating high priest, whips his guilt ridden subjects into an ecstatic frenzy of remorse. And the dance of Furies around sleeping Orestes and Electra (evocatively choreographed by Laurel MacDonald) had an eerie, frighteningly beauty. And Orestes’ defiant exit, pursued by Furies and projected in real time onto a huge scrim, was another memorably well-staged set piece.
McKay also had the benefit of very good performances by a troupe of talented young actors. Robin McKittrick, well known for his hilarious comedic performances, gave real force to Orestes’ vengeful rage. Serena MacDonald, as Electra, had the neurotic grace befitting a young woman wronged by Fate and who insisted on being the only sane person in an insane society. And Ray Gardiner, as Aegistheus, besides having a kingly stage presence, gave his character a much needed complexity. But even talented actors have an uphill fight when they are cast in roles they are too young for, especially in this production where three significant roles had this burden laid on them: Dawn White as Clytemnestra, John LeBlanc as Orestes’ tutor and Colin MacIntyre as Zeus.
And there were other missed opportunities. When Electra and Clymnestra separately interrogate the mysterious young stranger about his life and reasons for being in Argos, Sarte’s dialogue suggests that the two women, for different reasons, both hope and both fear that he is really Orestes and Orestes, sensing their intentions and unwilling to act until he has settled his own mind, misleads the two of them. Unfortunately, McKay’s direction did not forcefully build on one of Sartre’s few attempts to create some dramatic suspense.
And during the ominous day of the dead scene, why did the high priest, strongly performed by Keith Morrison, have the Southern accent of a TV gospel evangelist? It was jarring to the ear and seemed anachronistic and inappropriately cartoonish. It had the effect of undercutting the character’s menace.
Most importantly, when reading the script, a reader could hardly miss the erotic charge that passes between Orestes and Electra, his sister. It’s an important dramatic ingredient that one could argue fuels their bloodlust. Electra especially is constantly describing her imagined Orestes in terms more fitting to a conquering lover than a brother. And, although McKittrick’s and MacDonald’s early scenes together carried some suggestion of this subtext, later scenes, for whatever reasons, hardly hinted at this undercurrent in their relationship.
But these criticism noted, McKay did grasp the dark profundity and the urgency of Sartre’s vision, which is no small accomplishment. And if there were some annoying bits of mishandled blocking, it was nothing that affected the overall success of the production. This was a huge, daunting play and McKay must share credit with his stage manager Ida Steeves and their large stage crew for its smooth staging. And special mention must be made of Michael MacDonald who composed and directed the richly textured original score for the play.
But still, given certain thematic and dramatic similarities between The Flies and the earlier Sector 8, one can’t help feeling that McKay has kept his audiences too long at the apocalypse. Orestes says near the end of the play, “human life begins at the far side of despair”, but the human spirit does not always need despair as its only means of expression.
Coming Up in the Dramagroup’s season is Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s romantic comedy directed by John Lingard and scheduled for the end of November. In December, The Savoy Theatre (along with the UCCB Dramagroup) presents The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, directed by Chris Lorway, about a rowdy bunch of brothers and sisters who wreak havoc on the title event.
And, on St. Valentine’s Day weekend, in February, the UCCB Dramagroup will be presenting Love Stinks, a perverse collection of songs and skits, compiled and directed by yours truly with musical direction by Michael MacDonald, built around the theme that love… well, stinks.
So, until next time, last one to the far side of despair is a rotten oeuf.