As it happened the evening of the opening performance of Katharine’s Island, I had the opportunity to walk alone from the Chapel in the King’s Bastion, where the play was getting ready to start, down through the fog enshrouded reconstruction of the Fortress of Louisbourg to the harbourside restaurant where the pre-show meal of fresh salmon was to be served.
We had arrived at the Fortress after the tourists had left and the last bus of Fortress staff trundled off into the fog after the site had closed for the day. I half expected the shades of the town’s oldest inhabitants to emerge from the mist around me, and I thought: the ticket price would be worth it just for this single moment. Where else in the world could anyone experience a singular moment like this?
And then I had a delicious meal in a rustic eatery attended by genial servers before a pleasant walk back up the hill to the Chapel and an engaging performance of a smartly written original work from one of the island’s brightest playwrights.
Anyone familiar with playwright Lindsay Thompson’s earlier work would understand why she was attracted to the story of Katharine McLennan. Thompson has skewered the sexist slant of fairy tales, adapted and directed a highly successful production of Pride and Prejudice, and most recently brought a darkly wry approach to a tale of self-made “Amazons”. She has also been (rightly, given the very deep pool of talent) outspoken about the limited roles, both in range and number, available for women in the Cape Breton theatre community. (This production was created by the recently formed Her Voice Theatre Company which seeks to addresses these concerns of gender imbalance on Cape Breton stages.)
McLennan grew up the daughter of privilege, her father was a steel plant executive, in a large estate-like home, visiting the Louvre in Paris with her mother, travelling throughout Canada, and looking forward to a life of opportunities out of the reach of similarly aged women eking out a life in the company houses on the other side of the harbour.
In her early twenties when the First World War crashed upon her life, McLennan volunteered as a nurse’s aide and experienced the bloody horrors of machine age battle and meeting women from other walks of life she might have never otherwise befriended.
McLennan returned to Cape Breton with a purpose and unflagging drive to change the world. The programme for Katharine’s Island notes she worked tirelessly “to have the Fortress of Louisbourg recognized as a national historic site, she would serve as the Louisbourg Museum’s volunteer curator for nearly 30 years. In that time she would also be instrumental in the forming and flourishing of such integral community organizations as the Cape Breton Regional Library (KC: a good thing because that is where I am writing this review), the old Sydney Society, The Cape Breton Miners’ Museum and the establishment of the first blood collection drive on the island.”
Thompson’s play makes it very clear McLennan was aware of her privileged life and uses this conceit to place in context the historical characters that McLennan imagines being connected to a box of artifacts she keeps in her cluttered desk drawer.
A feather evokes a Mi’kmaq girl who contemplates the impact the arrival of a daintily dressed French “lady” means on the aboriginal way of life; a bone fragment recalls a Scottish midwife trapped inside the walls of the Fortress during a siege barrage who comforts a woman in labour with memories of her Highland home so much like the island she finds herself on; a plain wooden crucifix calls forth a Congregation of Notre Dame sister who finds herself in spiritual despair after she witnesses the inhumanity of panicked escape from the fallen Fortress; and a fragile porcelain cup suggests a scene where a flighty upper class gets a more truthful answer than she expects from her indentured serving girl on the nature of life choices available to 18th century women of all classes.
These scenes are linked by reminisces by McLennan of Edith and Helen, the two nurses she worked alongside at the frontline field hospital in Northern France.
As much as Thompson has a message, she creates believable and engaging characters to champion each perspective. In a few well-written lines, Thompson’s script puts her audience into each fresh situation, usually right at the tip of the emotional climax. Each scene does its work with some beautifully crafted dialogue which, even with its heart and mind on its feminist sleeve, never becomes preachy but stays rooted in the perspective of each character. It is great theatre.
Director Bonnie MacLeod, who also directed the Bandshell Players rousing production of Much Ado About Nothing last month, created an ensemble piece with her talented quintet of actors. She used the area in front of the Chapel’s altar to great effect: her pacing and movement was well considered but her real work was how quickly she established each character and found depth in the various short scenes.
Sandy Anthony played McLennan with a quiet strength and intelligence and generosity that seemed true to everything ever said about the real life Katharine. Kathleen O’Toole was charming as both the feisty Nurse Edith and the pragmatic and caring midwife. Thompson was fun as Nurse Helen and had her best moment as the righteously outraged Sister Adalac. Maura Lea Morykot had two great characters, the wise and forward thinking Mi’kmaq girl Wopk, and the preening self-centred upper class, Lilith (I fancy it was Lilith that Wopk encountered). Jenn Tubrett played Anna, McLennan’s secretary, Marguerite the woman caught in the pangs of birthing, and in her best moment Adisa, Lilith’s servant, who has to walk the thin line of savouring the chance to speak the truth to her mistress without seeming bitterly insubordinate.
Adding to the performance are the several songs interspersed in the drama, beautifully sung (especially O’Toole’s Scottish lullaby) with simple but lovely harmonies and made even more evocative and vibrant, resonating on the stone wall of the chapel. (There is one well-known mining ballad used somewhat anachronistically, but what the hey they did a grand job of it.)
If you can see this at the Fortress please do. It’s a hefty ticket price ($50) but you get full value for the whole package. The McConnell Library in Sydney (built on land donated by McLennan) will give a fundraising performance in September that might be more affordable for some potential audience members.
Beyond this production, I think this script could stand on its own considerable merits for other theatre companies and for other audiences beyond its Cape Breton roots.