Jordan Tannahill is blowing up the Canadian stage
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