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Monday, 5 September 2016

Moving, but not heart-breaking: The Aeneid at the Stratford Festival

Saamer Usmani as Achates, Bahereh Yaraghi as Pyrgo, Gareth Potter as Aeneas
and Michael Spencer-Davis as Anchises. Photo by David Hou.
The Aeneid, by Oliver Kermeid; translated by Maureen Labonte
Directed by Keira Loghran
Designer Joanna Yu (set, costumes), Itai Erdal (lighting), Debashis Sinha (sound)
Featuring Gareth Potter, Karin Robinson, Saamer Usmani, Lanise Antoine Shelley, Rodrigo Beilfuss

Virgil’s Aeneid is about a man’s flight from war-torn ancient Troy and his founding of Rome. Oliver Kermeid’s adaptation is related to these events, but only tangentially, and unfortunately, this journey of a thousand miles begins with a few missteps.

It starts strongly – a packed nightclub of revellers dancing to an uplifting beat, unaware – despite the desperate warnings of a street prophet – that doom is imminent. Given recent events in Paris and Orlando an attack in a public place is a very good place to start, although in Kermeid’s play the motivations of the attackers are unknown. It’s when the action goes to slow-motion that one gets the sense that the production will not be as hard-hitting as perhaps it should.

There is poetry in the choreographed movement – refugees mimicking waves upon a shore, swirling robes to imitate a storm at sea – but it overshadows the poetry and strength of the text most of the time, which is a shame, considering the central plot is a shade of its former self in Virgil’s epic.

Karen Robinson as the Immigration Officer. Photo by David Hou.
This plot, in which Aeneas is forced to flee his home, loses a wife, his father, his friends and almost himself before regaining purpose, determination and finally a new home, is scattered among other tableaux of what it means to be a refugee. In most cases, these tableaux are more powerful than Aeneas’ story: a young woman facing maddeningly inscrutable red-tape of an immigration office, only to be threatened with sexual violence when she manages to free herself from it. A man who begs Aeneas to let his delusional, frantic wife keep his baby for the night, just so she can pretend for a time that it is her own lost child. A matriarchal woman who incites her own small community of refugees to fight a group of camp newcomers, afraid they’ll compete for scarce resources – only to lose her beloved son in the skirmish.

These all provide an insiders look at the trials refugees must bear – whether they be from internal struggles and conflicts within refugee communities themselves or from external sources like insensitive government officials, or the “rather not see you” attitudes of the privileged.

Unfortunately, the elements of Aeneas’ own journey seem forced by comparison. Even the haunting scene in the underworld in which Aeneas is reunited briefly with his dead father, is given over to a recitation of the countries from whom refugees have fled. It is a sadly long list, but ultimately not about Aeneas at all.

Perhaps in the biggest misstep of all, in the end Aeneid’s promised land looks very Canadian (polar fleece and a description of wheat fields) which is a little rose-coloured, given Canada’s history with refugees pre-World War II. Cynically, one wonders if Aeneas would have been so welcome if he had been any other colour than white.

Members of the company in The Aeneid. Photo by David Hou.
In short, the problem seems to be two-fold: in the text – it just does not have a whole lot to do with Aeneas, despite Gareth Potter’s intrinsically dignified performance; and in the direction. Instead of stylish choreography one feels that the director should have taken aim at people like me: privileged white and as unethnic as you can possibly get, and not just held a mirror up to us, but shoved it in our faces or smacked us upside the head with it. Veiling these people in symbolism makes them easier to ignore, or easier to pretend you don’t understand.

The Aeneid continues in repertory until Oct. 4 at the Studio Theatre.

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