Stage Door Review
Sunday, September 10, 2023
by Judith Thompson, directed by Murdoch Schon
Here For Now Theatre, Stratford Perth Museum, Stratford
September 8-23, 2023
Maeve: “Roots are sacrosanct”
Here For Now Theatre concludes its summer festival on a high note with the world premiere of Queen Maeve by Judith Thompson. Thompson, of course, is one of Canada’s best-known playwrights, and Queen Maeve turns out to be one of the best plays she has ever written. The play is written for a senior female actor who can deliver a tour-de-force performance and that is exactly what the role receives from Clare Coulter. Coulter’s performance will leave you awe-struck with wonder.
The play is set in the nondescript room of an 88-year-old woman in a nursing home in Cornwall, Ontario. The woman, when she was still working, had the humble job of selling shoes in a mall shoe store. She speaks directly to us as if we were her confidants. To us she reveals that contrary to her seemingly undistinguished life and her present decrepit appearance, she is really Queen Maeve, the renowned warrior queen of Irish legend. For the elderly woman, whom we call Maeve, Queen Maeve was a figure from history, not fantasy.
Most people today, if they have heard of Queen Maeve at all, will know her from the satiric comic book series The Boys (2006-), or the streaming series (2019-) based on it, in which she is the parody equivalent of DC’s Wonder Woman. Thompson’s Queen Maeve knows nothing of this. She knows all the legends about herself in minute detail. She knows that Maeve was so sexually alluring that men fighting against her would lose two-thirds of their valour. She has an affinity for wolves. She knows that Maeve was buried 3000 years ago in Miosgán Médhbh in a stone cairn at the top of Knocknarea in County Sligo standing upright, holding a spear and facing her enemies in Ulster.
Maeve answers all the questions that arise from her claim to be the ancient Queen Maeve. How can she be dead and buried in Ireland and yet be alive in Canada? Answer: Maeve had the support of Macha, the goddess of war, and could thus do impossible things. Why would the most beautiful woman in Ireland take on the disguise of an old woman in Canada? Answer: the better to surprise her enemies to take revenge.
And Maeve the old woman does take revenge. During the course of the play’s 90 minutes, Maeve has three visitors – her grandson Jake, Georgia, her daughter and Jake’s mother, and Siobhan, the PSW who takes care of Maeve. Against the first two Maeve takes merciless revenge. Siobhan, however, she loves as if she were her daughter.
Through her portrait of Maeve, Thompson presents us with a symbol of womanhood fighting the onslaught of old age. Maeve’s periodic transformations into a famous warrior queen simply makes explicit the implicit struggle Maeve has with the outside world. Maeve’s view of her “real self” as Queen Maeve represents the strength of individuality that she holds onto in the face of an outside world that lumps her together with all other aged people as pathetic and useless.
Clare Coulter’s performance is simply magnificent. She invests every word and every pause with so much meaning that Thompson’s prose comes near to poetry. Coulter portrays Maeve as caught between two realities. One is that of an old woman in a nightgown who is losing control over her body and may be losing control over her mind. The other is that of her defiant inner self that she identifies with the legendary Queen Maeve bearing a sword who is proud and wrathfully dispenses with anyone who does not meet her high standards of how to lead a noble life.
What is so magical about Thompson’s text and Coulter’s performance is how easily Coulter slides from one reality to the other simply through change of tone and facial expression. Coulter does this so effectively that when Maeve the old woman transforms into the legendary Queen Maeve, we start to believe that the spirit of the ancient queen really is taking over and revivifying the aged woman’s body. The implacable hatred she turns on Jake and Georgia and King Lear-like imprecations she rains down on both of them are truly frightening. In fact, we begin to wonder whether Maeve’s notion is really true that the aged body is merely a disguise used by the warrior queen.
When the wrath of the legendary queen passes, Maeve returns to her everyday status and asks herself, as the legendary queen never would, whether she has done the right thing. The greatness of Coulter’s performance lies in never allowing us to be certain which of the two realities best defines the woman we see before us.
Coulter is supported by excellent performances from all three of the other actors. Michael Neale makes Jake seem both like a dreamer, which appeals to both the legendary and everyday Maeve, and like a weak, untrustworthy person, which appeals to neither. Neale has Jake spend a long-time buttering Maeve up before he reveals his real reason for visiting her. Throughout Jake’s initial speeches we see Coulter’s face gradually shift from kindliness to suspicion and finally to anger as Maeve perceives his intent to deceive her. Yet, Neale’s Jake is as naïve as he is weak and reads nothing in Maeve’s change of expression.
Thompson gives Coulter and Allegra Fulton as Georgia a brilliantly written scene together. Georgia thinks that since she and Maeve share a common loss, that this is a chance for her as a daughter to seek some kind of reconciliation with her mother. In this, Georgia proves as naïve as Jake. Maeve not only rebuffs any kind of reconciliation but punishes Georgia with a scathing critique of Georgia’s faults as a mother and as a human being. Fulton shows that how pathetic Georgia’s attempts are to slow this tirade and displays an agonized conflict of emotions – pity for and anger at Maeve as well as pity for and anger at herself. Contrary to Maeve’s encounter with Jake, here we sympathize with Georgia and Fulton helps us feel the combined sorrow and pain that overcome Georgia.
Having shown us both the justified and the unjustified wrath of Maeve as warrior queen, the encounter with Siobhan reveals yet another side to Maeve’s character. Siobhan is the only person who dares to call Maeve by her real name. Maeve forbids it, but Siobhan will have none of her eccentricity and just wants to do her job. Yet, Caroline Gillis shows that Siobhan puts such love into her care for Maeve that it drains the anger and irritation out of Maeve. Gillis makes the scene where Siobhan singing an old tune simply washes Maeve’s hair into the most touching moment of the play. The scene is really one that stands out of time. Is a handmaiden washing Queen Maeve’s hair or is a PSW just carefully tending to an old woman?
There is a fifth figure in the play – Cait Watson as an onstage musician. She occasionally sets the mood for scenes and, in particular, backs up Maeve’s anger when she transforms into Queen Maeve. Watson’s being on stage is obviously meant to make us regard the theatre as theatre. When Maeve is in warrior queen mode, she acknowledges the musician’s presence. When she is the aged senior, she does not. My main complaints with the production are that Watson in no way needs a mic for such a small venue and that director Murdoch Schon does not find enough occasions to use Watson. There are more transitions between scenes that could benefit from Watson’s wistful Gaelic tunes.
Schon does make good use of the venue. All the Here For Now shows this summer have been held in a small marquee behind the Stratford Perth Museum. One side facing some bush and a field has been left open. We see Jake in the distance trying to rustle up the courage to see Maeve long before he enters the marquee. When he departs, he again retreats into the distance and remains in our sight all through the visit of his mother Georgia, a ploy which helps reinforce the connections among Maeve, Jake and Georgia. When Georgia departs Jake takes her arm and the two wend their way into the field and out of sight, as if they were gradually fading in importance in Maeve’s mind.
I have three pleas to make about Queen Maeve. First, the show is mandatory viewing for the play itself and for Clare Coulter’s performance in particular. Next, a play as beautifully written as this and with such an astounding performance as Coulter’s needs to be seen by the largest possible audience. I do hope the production can visit at least one other city so that people can delight in it. Last, it has been a long time since I have been so completely blown away by a performance as I was by Coulter’s. It is impossible to imagine anyone else in the central role. If possible, I wish that the play could be captured on tape, inadequate as the medium is, just to preserve some aspect of Coulter’s performance for the future.
Queen Maeve proves what followers of Here For Now Theatre have known from its first summer festival in 2020. People who contemplate a trip to Stratford to see great theatre must include Here For Now Theatre in their plans or risk missing some of the best new plays and some of most powerful performances of the summer.
Photos: Clare Coulter as Maeve; Caroline Gillis as Siobhan and Clare Coulter as Maeve; Michael Neale as Jake; Allegra Fulton as Georgia. © 2023 Ann Baggley.
For tickets visit: www.herefornowtheatre.com.