Play’s parts better than whole
The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt
(out of 4) By Michel Marc Bouchard. Translated by Linda Gaboriau. Directed by Jackie Maxwell. Until Oct. 11 at the Royal George Theatre. 1-800-511-SHAW. NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONT.— There’s a scene late in the first act of Michel Marc Bouchard’s The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt, which opened Friday night at the Royal George Theatre, that is one of the most harrowing things seen on a stage in recent memory.
Wade Bogert-O’Brien, playing a young seminarian in turn-of-thecentury Quebec City, begins to tell a tale of sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of an older priest that continued for many years.
What makes it so effective is a combination of things: the carefully controlled restraint of Bouchard’s writing, the beautifully measured power of Bogert-O’Brien’s performance, and the balanced quality of Jackie Maxwell’s direction that has led us to this moment.
It’s a combination of theatrical skills that results in as good a five minutes in the theatre as you’re like- ly to see this season.
If nothing else in The Divine quite rises to those heights, it’s not because it’s a play of limited ambition. Far from it.
Bouchard takes a real event in history — the visit of legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt to Quebec City in 1905 — and uses it to cast some dazzling new light on the themes that this gifted author has pursued with passion for all of his career: the destruction of innocence, the inequalities in his native province’s social and religious structures, and the healing capability of theatre in the face of these ills.
Bouchard’s play moves from the Grand Seminary of Quebec, to the theatre where Bernhardt is preparing her run, to a satanic sweatshop of a factory where the young and powerless labour under inhumane conditions.
In all of these locations, Bouchard writes with power, using broad strokes of language (muscularly translated by Linda Gaboriau), and Maxwell has directed with fluidity against the set of Michael Gianfrancesco and the lighting of Bonnie Beecher.
Virtually every scene in the play makes its points well and leaves you thinking afterwards. The only prob- lem is that the various worlds of the play don’t totally hold together.
The intense young seminarian Michaud, played with wondrous complexity by Ben Sanders, wants to be an author and brings a character study of Bogert-O’Brien’s Talbot to the “divine” Bernhardt in her dressing room.
It’s here that the play’s links are tenuous and one has to follow the narrative line more on faith than on anything else.
Luckily, the cast members are all superb and the clarity of their work helps plaster over some of the flaws in the evening’s dramaturgy.
Casting Fiona Reid as Bernhardt may seem like a dream, but she doesn’t allow herself to use her technical versatility to coast to easy victory. Instead, she digs deep inside herself to come up with the necessary passion to drive the evening.
Sanders and Bogert-O’Brien are also superb as the two central seminarians, Martin Happer has great strength as an older clergyman and Andrew Bunker delights as Bernhardt’s manager.
The Divine is one of those plays whose whole may not equal the sum of its parts, but those parts are all highly meritorious and a credit to all concerned.