Marianne Helweg in 1939, just before she married Laurence Gilliam.
Bill Gilliam is pretty courageous. While most children prefer not to think about their parents’ love life, Gilliam has embraced it. In his latest and perhaps strangest concert, Poems from a Love Triangle—which we had the pleasure of seeing on Saturday night at the Music Gallery—Gilliam uses the illicit love triangle between his mother, Marianne Gilliam; his father, Laurence Gilliam; and stepfather, the famous Irish poet William Robert (Bertie) Rodgers, as a source of inspiration.
William Robert (Bertie) Rodgers.
In 1946, Marianne first met Bertie, when her husband Laurence, who was the head of BBC Radio Features, brought the rising poetry star to London to broadcast his work. Marianne and Bertie quickly fell in love and began a secret affair. In 1952, they finally married and moved with Marianne’s children to Suffolk, England. At the time, Bill was only two years old.
Overall, we found the concert’s tone rather dark and at times hostile to Gilliam’s deceased parents. “Why the pain and problems remembering,” exclaimed Marion Newman, who played Nina, Marianne’s oldest daughter, in the third scene. “Why when trying to write a story about my childhood, knives seem to come from nowhere and pin my brain down?” This isn’t light stuff. But according to Gilliam, his composition, which uses his late stepfather’s and sister’s poetry, is all about forgiveness. “I put it out there,” explained Gilliam. “I’m not shying away from it. These are issues that a lot of families deal with. I guess my hope would be that people watching and experiencing the piece would maybe consider a path of forgiveness.” Gilliam isn’t even the least bit embarrassed about the sexual overtones of the concert. “I think erotica is part of our culture. My stepfather was very comfortable in exploring that; now I’m sort of following in his footsteps. Our culture tends to be very prudish about these things. [Bertie’s] speaking on a more universal note, and that’s where I took my cue.”
The concert featured several other acclaimed actors and musicians, including actor Declan Whelehan, conductor Gregory Oh, and pianist Jeanie Chung (although Chung is probably better known as the common-law wife of Toronto’s notorious Igor Kenk). Despite a few technical problems, including a rogue cursor that kept bouncing around on the projection screens, the show was a feast for the senses. When it ended, and the lights came on, we couldn’t help but notice that for a minute everyone in the audience remained silent before slowly coming back to life.
All images courtesy of Bill Gilliam.