Stage Door Review
Saturday, July 31, 2021
written and directed by Tim Carroll
Shaw Festival, The Humeniuk Foundation Stage, Niagara-on-the-Lake
July 24-August 6, 2021;
Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
August 17-October 2, 2021
“Could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other?”
The English novelist Graham Greene used to divide his works into serious novels and what he termed “entertainments”. One can find the same division in the works of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), who would would often write an “entertainment” to decompress after writing one of her major works. After completing one of greatest novels, The Waves (1931), she wrote the lighthearted novella Flush (1933), a biography of the beloved cocker spaniel of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61). Now the Shaw Festival is presenting the world premiere of Artistic Director Tim Carroll’s adaptation of Woolf’s novella. It is thoroughly delightful.
Flush is presented on The Humeniuk Foundation Stage situated outdoors just southeast of the Governors Council Lounge. The stage is imagined as a type of carnival wagon with one side open and whimsically ornamented around the stage opening. The front curtain is made up of four roll-up sections that can be halted at any point along their upward or downward course.
When all four are fully up they reveal a stage upon the stage which is where the action of the story is played out. And, as if that were not enough metatheatricality, there is a small stage within that stage where Flush’s life as a puppy is depicted.
The show is presented as if it were an illustrated lecture in which the words of four narrators are illustrated in pantomime on the stage upon the stage. The honoured guest of the evening is Virginia Woolf herself (Jacqueline Thair), who begins her narration with precisely the same paragraphs about the dubious origin of the word “spaniel” that Woolf uses to begin her novella. Indeed, anyone familiar with Woolf’s novella will note that the words of the four narrators are all taken exactly from Woolf as they were written. All Carrol has done in adapting Woolf’s text is to abbreviate it by striking out passages and episodes that might appear as digressions. Thus, all the passages dealing with the Brownings’ dalliance with spiritualism in Italy are excised.
Once Woolf’s parodically pedantic prelude is over we learn about Flush’s happiness as a puppy played out of the little stage-within-a-stage-within-a-stage. Flush the puppy is a two-dimensional marionette at this point and is well operated by Drew Plummer to capture all the innocent creature’s carefreeness. A lovely feature of this tiny stage is its use of a moving panorama that looks like something out of a children’s storybook behind the scampering Flush.
When Flush grows older the two-dimensional puppet is replaced with a three-dimensional plush dog whose head and feet Plummer beautifully controls to demonstrate a wide range of emotions.
Carroll has the narrators alternate delivering their speeches on either side of the stage-within-a-stage while standing in full view at floor stand microphones. In a curious but amusing contrast, for the actors depicting Elizabeth Barrett (Julie Lumsden), her maid Wilson (Jacqueline Thair) and her father and Robert Browning (Jonathan Tan), the rolling curtains are lowered just so far that their heads are not seen. The effect of this procedure is to underscore the fact that it is Flush, not the humans, who is the central character of the story and to force us to focus on the world as he experiences it, namely through the hems, shoes and trousers of the people who surround him.
The Brownings’ famous love story is very amusingly told. Flush knows that Elizabeth receives pieces of paper with ink marks on them and knows that she weeps afterwards, but he can’t decipher that these marks are evoking love in his mistress for a man. When the man does appear in the presence of Elizabeth, Flush is not at all pleased since it seems to him that this person is a rival for the affections his mistress really should reserve solely for him.
All four narrators speak in plummy British accents which contrast comically with the seeming triviality of the story’s subject matter. The accents also, like Woolf’s elevated style, deliberately situate the narrators as upper class which clashes ironically with such topics as the lower class and natural animal instincts. Indeed, Woolf’s entire purpose in viewing the Brownings from Flush’s point of view is to mock the absurdity of situations and sentiments that human beings take so seriously.
In her first speech Woolf dilates upon the topic of the antiquity of the spaniel breed and the right of pure bred spaniels to look down on mongrels. This, of course, mocks the British reverence for the aristocracy but it also points out how circumscribed the life is that they lead. When Elizabeth’s maid takes Flush out for a walk the loveliest green spaces where Flush would love to play are marked with signs saying that dogs must be kept on chains.
Once Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning elope and settle in Italy, Flush is delighted to discover that such British barriers to play do not exist. While Flush is at first inclined to look down on the mongrel dogs about him, soon he discovers an urge that had been suppressed in England and, off stage to be sure, finally explores he sexual freedom. Meanwhile, Elizabeth when in Italy recovers from the indefinite ailment hat had confined her to her bed and regains her own health and vitality.
Of the actors Drew Plummer deserves major praise fo his insightful manipulation of the Flush marionettes. As happens in the best puppeteering, we forget very quickly that Flush is a puppet at all and regard him as an independent character. The other three actors also deserve credit for their fine ability at mime. Even with the face, the most expressive region of the human body hidden, these three manage to convey through gestures all we need to know about their joys, angers and sorrows.
Hanne Loosen’s sets are a delight and turn a real-life story into a kind of fantastic fairy tale. At present the pageant wagon dedicated to Flush faces a lawn with about 50 seats all in the open with no protect from sun or rain. If you see the play in this configuration be sure to wear a hat and sunscreen. Luckily, from August 17 to October 2 the production will move indoors into the Royal George Theatre. There one hopes there will be no need for microphones and the sound designer will manage to prevent the show’s soundtrack of excerpts from Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream from drowning out the actors.
Flush is a very pleasant hour of imaginative theatricality which functions both as a perceptive tale of a pampered dog’s coming to terms with real life and as a sly critique of the failing of upper class personages who are no less pampered and in need of awakening. It is also story of the age-old love of human and dog that defies all the boundaries of language that one might think would separate them. As the narrator wonders: “Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other?”
Photos: Flush sailing to Europe (Drew Plummer puppeteer); Flush (Drew Plummer, puppeteer); Julie Lumsden as Elizabeth Barrett (Browning) and Flush (Drew Plummer, puppeteer); Julie Lumsden as Narrator and Flush (Drew Plummer, puppeteer). © 2021 Lauren Garbutt.
For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.