Stage Door Review

A Hundred Words for Snow

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

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by Tatty Hennessy, directed by Jonathan Goad

Here for Now Theatre Company, The Bruce Hotel Back Lawn, 89 Parkview Drive, Stratford

July 18-September 6, 2020

“Love is life’s snow.” (Fridtjof Nansen, Farthest North, 1897)

The second show I saw  as part of Here for Now Theatre’s inventive Open-Air Theatre Festival was the Canadian premiere of A Hundred Words for Snow, the debut play by British writer Tatty Hennessy. Hennessy’s play received the Heretic Voices award in 2017 and went on to win a Vault Origin award and receive four Off West End nominations including Best New Play and Most Promising New Playwright. It premiered in 2018 at Arcola Theatre and was so popular it transferred in 2019 to the Trafalgar Studios in the West End.

There is no reason why Here for Now Theatre’s production should not be equally popular. It’s a fascinating multi-layered story acted by the bright and engaging Siobhan O’Malley and given insightful, unfussy direction by Stratford Festival stalwart Jonathan Goad.

The story concerns the 15-year-old Rory, a spirited girl who adored her late father, a local high school geography teacher. Rory, who dislikes her full name “Aurora”, knows that her father’s major interest was in the “beardy old men” who explored the Canadian Arctic. After her father dies in a car accident, Rory takes it upon herself to help realize his fondest dream – to travel to the North Pole. To do this Rory steals her mother’s credit card and books a flight to the norther city of Tromsø, Norway. Then she plans to take another flight to Longyearbyen in Svalbard (formerly known as Spitzbergen) and on to the Russian Arctic base Barneo. From there she will seek somehow to fly over the North Pole where she will scatter her father’s ashes.

Questions that arise within the story are whether the novice traveller Rory can really undertake such an ambitious epic journey and what will happen when Rory’s mother discovers that both Rory and her credit card have gone missing.

Stage directions for the play specify that the only props needed for the show are an urn and a copy of Farthest North, the 1897 account of his travels by Rory’s father’s favourite explorer Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930). Nansen’s book recounts not only his attainment of the “farthest north” any European had thereto reached (86º13’) but offers Nansen’s philosophical views on the nature of exploration and of human endeavour in general. In one passage, quoted in the play, he observes, “Alas! Alas! Life is full of disappointments; as one reaches one ridge there is always another and a higher one beyond which blocks the view”.

This is hardly an uplifting statement from an adventurer who never did attain his goal of reaching the North Pole, but the fact that Hennessy has Rory call it to mind more than once gives the tale of a teenager trying to honour her father philosophical depth. Hennessy shows that Rory’s enthusiasm has to compete with the idea that all human endeavour may be futile.

Besides that, Rory’s story has another tale to tell of which she is not quite aware. When Rory’s story begins she portrays herself as a socially awkward teen with generally low self-esteem and a trenchantly critical view of society and of herself. She begins her quest in what seems a fit of reckless naïveté. Along the way, however, through interactions with people like a handsome young man in Tromsø and a wise female painter in Longyearbyen, Rory grows into the heroic role she has set up for herself. Hennessy has the coarse triviality of her teenspeak break into beautifully accurate descriptions of the wonders of her natural surroundings. Rory’s journey to the North Pole for her father also becomes Rory’s journey from innocence to maturity.

Siobhan O’Malley gives a wonderfully sympathetic portrayal of Rory, both of the the teen’s everyday observations of travel and of Rory’s deeper perceptions of which she seems gradually to become aware. O’Malley is also adept at distinguishing Rory’s voice from the ten or so other characters she plays. This includes a section in which O’Malley clearly presents the interactions of four teens in Tromsø, all speaking English with Norwegian accents. O’Malley also handily sets apart the confused despair of Rory’s mother from the wise certainty of the female painter in Longyearbyen.

The action is staged on three white-painted pallets stacked up that we can easily imagine as ice floes. Goad’s direction focusses entirely on highlighting O’Malley’s performance and uses no unnecessary gestures or movements.

Rory’s tale includes some of the history of European exploration of the Arctic and anyone who knows that history or has travelled there will see how well Hennessy has done her research. Those who have actually been to Tromsø and Svalbard will find Hennessy’s descriptions of the air, the light and the geography startlingly accurate. Hennessy did, in fact, travel to the places she describes and certainly has a knack for putting the indefinable atmospheres of those northern places into words.

With A Hundred Words for Snow, Here for Now Theatre has another hit to add to its production of Whack! (in which O’Malley also acts) and another play that deserves wide exposure. Again we have to thank Here for Now Theatre for brightening an otherwise darkened summer.

For tickets, visit www.herefornowtheatre.com.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Detail of poster for A Hundred Words for Snow at The Vault, 2018; Siobhan O’Malley as Rory with Jonathan Goad in background, © 2020 Terry Manzo.