Most unsolicited messages from admirers to famous writers do not result in collaborations: but when Lindsay Cochrane, kindergarten teacher and English literature grad, emailed Yann Martel, the acclaimed author of Life of Pi, about adapting one of his novels into a stage play, the two ended up joining forces. The result is Cochrane’s first play, Beatrice & Virgil, on now at Factory Theatre (in a co-production with Ottawa’s National Arts Centre). With the help of director Sarah Garton Stanley, Cochrane has made an impressively valiant effort to wrangle some large, abstract, and troublesome ideas into a well-crafted work of live theatre.
In Beatrice & Virgil, Damien Atkins plays Henry, an author who’s responsible for one major bestseller, an allegorical work featuring animals. Atkins, a fictional stand-in, it seems, for Martel himself, is recovering from a disastrous meeting with his publisher about his second book, an inaccessible take on the use of metaphor in narratives about the Holocaust. One day, a fan, also named Henry, sends a letter asking for his help with a play. Henry (Pierre Brault), a taxidermist, has written a work inspired by the stuffed donkey and howler monkey in his shop. At first, Henry (Atkins) is tasked with describing the horrific howl of a monkey in distress, but he soon finds himself consumed by the play’s larger story, which involves Virgil (the monkey) and Beatrice (the donkey) waiting alone in a barren wasteland and talking, very much in the manner of Waiting for Godot, about a catastrophe they call “The Horrors.” The action moves back and forth from Henry giving a speech at a podium to the taxidermy studio to the world inside the play, which features Atkins as Beatrice and Brault as Virgil.
Even if you haven’t read the book, which was generally poorly received by critics upon its release in 2010, it’s quite clear early on what’s in store for these anthropomorphized animals, and the ending spells out the significance of the strange taxidermist and playwright all too clearly—if only Martel would let the audience feel a little bit clever on their own. In fact, as the metaphors pile up, Martel’s smarter-than-thou attitude becomes more and more evident in Cochrane’s adaptation. Still, the script’s prose can be stunning at times—the speech in which Virgil describes a pear as if he’s describing faith in God creates a sense of wonder, and Beatrice’s account of the torture she faced at the hands of an unknown evil, a powerful sense of revulsion.
Atkins and Brault deserve much credit, too, for giving these words such gravity while maintaining the play’s magical realism. Despite the fact that his moments at the podium can feel like an expository crutch, Atkins invests Henry with the honest humility of a once-acclaimed author who has lost his confidence and finds himself confronted by a story too large to wrap his mind around. Brault impresses as the taxidermist Henry, although his character doesn’t offer the same scope for sympathy or understanding as Atkins’s.
It has its clunky moments, but on the whole, Beatrice and Virgil is an exciting play from a new talent.