Play Fight­ing

Jor­dan Tan­nahill is blow­ing up the Cana­dian stage

The Walrus - - ARTS & CULTURE - By Si­mon Lewsen pho­to­graph by Cal­lan Field

In 1497, or so the story goes, the Re­nais­sance painter San­dro Bot­ti­celli burned his art­works in a pub­lic bon­fire at the be­hest of Giro­lamo Savonarola, a friar and Catholic zealot. It’s un­clear why Bot­ti­celli fell un­der the cler­gy­man’s in­flu­ence, but some his­to­ri­ans be­lieve that the painter was aton­ing for “unchris­tian” sex­ual pro­cliv­i­ties. He never mar­ried, and there were ru­mours of a kept man.

In the new one-act pro­duc­tion Bot­ti­celli in the Fire , twenty-seven-year-old Toronto play­wright Jor­dan Tan­nahill de­picts the artist as a stud, a horn dog, and a nar­cis­sist. “Ev­ery­body wants to fuck Bot­ti­celli,” says Tan­nahill. In the play, the fif­teenth cen­tury is draw­ing to a tense close: the plague is ram­pant, the cor­rupt House of Medici is on the brink of col­lapse, and Savonarola is whip­ping up pop­ulist anger against bankers, aris­to­crats, and sex­ual lib­ertines. As a ben­e­fi­ciary of Medici, Bot­ti­celli knows he’s in trou­ble. So he cuts a deal with Savonarola, re­nounc­ing his art to save his life. “I’m fas­ci­nated,” says Tan­nahill, “by flam­ing fag­gots through­out his­tory who have some­how man­aged to sur­vive.”

The play de­buts on April 26 at Toronto’s Cana­dian Stage com­pany, along­side an­other Tan­nahill one-act, Sun­day in Sodom , about the Bib­li­cal sin city. Both are set in a re­mote past that re­sem­bles the present: the char­ac­ters may wear shawls or bro­caded robes, but they also read Van­ity Fair and talk on cell­phones.

For Tan­nahill, de­liv­er­ing a nar­ra­tive isn’t good enough. If theatre is to re­main vi­able, he says, it must feel vi­tal, in both senses of the word — im­por­tant, and crack­ling with en­ergy. In his 2015 book, Theatre of the Unim­pressed: In Search of Vi­tal Drama , Tan­nahill ar­gues that English-lan­guage theatre “is suf­fer­ing from a cri­sis of the mun­dane.” “Great work has ex­isted here and there within our ma­jor the­atres, but maybe not con­sis­tently,” says Tan­nahill. Pro­gram­mers and direc­tors rely too heav­ily on time-worn sto­ry­telling for­mu­las. “It’s like a diet ex­clu­sively of carbs.”

His bête noire is the “well-made play,” a genre es­tab­lished by nine­teenth-cen­tury hack Eugène Scribe that of­fers lin­ear sto­ry­lines, re­al­is­tic set­tings, and a clear mes­sage. At its most for­mu­laic, the well-made play takes place in a par­lour or din­ing room, where per­form­ers act out a cri­sis that gets re­solved trag­i­cally or hap­pily by the time the lights go out. Some of his­tory’s finest play­wrights — Au­gust Strind­berg, Hen­rik Ib­sen, Eu­gene O’neill — worked in this tra­di­tion, but they’re out­num­bered by their mid­dling con­tem­po­raries.

For the last sixty years, well-made plays have been a main­stay of Cana­dian pro­gram­ming at reper­tory fes­ti­vals and re­gional the­atres across the coun­try. Think of stan­dards such as Pyg­malion (Shaw Fes­ti­val, 2015), Hay Fever ( Strat­ford Fes­ti­val, 2014), or Driv­ing Miss Daisy (Van­cou­ver’s Arts Club Theatre Com­pany, 2014). They’re rarely bad — they tend to be “well-plot­ted, well-acted, well-de­signed, well-in­ten­tioned,” Tan­nahill writes — but they’re not ex­actly thrilling. “I’m bored by al­most all of it.”

For theatre to com­pete in an age of CGI and pres­tige TV, Tan­nahill says, it has to cap­i­tal­ize on the one at­tribute that makes it unique: that it hap­pens live. Ac­tors in drab pe­riod cos­tumes recit­ing staid lines don’t do that. Theatre must pro­vide in­ti­macy, top­i­cal­ity, and risk — a sense that events are work­ing them­selves out in real time, per­haps un­com­fort­ably close to where you’re sit­ting. For Tan­nahill, a play can be many things — lurid, con­fus­ing, his­tor­i­cally in­ac­cu­rate — but it ab­so­lutely can’t be bor­ing. “When you for­get why it’s called a play,” he says, “you’re doomed.”

In Se­cond Em­pire France, Tan­nahill would have been called an en­fant ter­ri­ble : a young up­start who tells the es­tab­lish­ment

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