Fiancée to Pyrrhus, Hermione (played by Christine Horne) is having a rough day.
Alluding to its name, the Luminato festival states that its purpose is to bring “Toronto’s light to the world, and the world’s light to Toronto.” And by presenting two shows by local theatrical mainstay Necessary Angel Theatre Company, Luminato organizers must think artistic director Daniel Brooks and co. are generating a lot of the city’s artistic illumination and can act as representatives for Toronto’s theatre scene. In that respect, Necessary Angel, which has been around for more than 30 years, is an obvious choice. But speaking of light, well, one of their latest productions, a modernized version of the Greek tragedy Andromache, is showing their audiences the company’s dark side.
“Oh, in this show, there’s danger. It’s a world experiencing the aftershocks of war, so it’s a dangerous situation to begin with for all these characters. It’s a pressure cooker,” says actor Ryan Hollyman. “And the play’s about the danger of the characters, and humans, and what they’re capable of.”
Originally written by Euripides, Necessary Angel’s Andromache is a modernized take on French playwright Jean Racine‘s version of the myth, penned in the 17th century. The story follows the “she-loves-him, he-loves-her, she’s-still-devoted-to-her-dead-husband-and-saving-her-son’s-life” storyline, set in post-war Troy. But this is no rom-com: the characters soon find themselves driven to inhuman atrocities by their unrequited passion for one another.
“For me, it’s about what people can be driven to in a ruthless time. Against the backdrop of war, it’s what individuals are doing, but also what a country, or an army, or a group can do for their cause too […] the emotional pain that we cause, not even the physical violence,” says Christine Horne, who plays Hermione, a woman desperately in love with the new ruler of Troy, Pyrrhus, who is, in turn, more enthralled by his slave, the recently widowed Andromache. Both Hollyman and Horne agree that the drama of this tragedy lies within the characters themselves and the mental torture they inflict upon each other, but with Scottish director Graham McLaren at the helm, the physical is always bubbling beneath the surface.
Ryan Hollyman as Pylades.
Remember 2010’s Dora-nominated Hamlet Project that thrilled critics (us included) with its dark experimentation in style, tone, and costume (or lack thereof)? What about now? With Andromache, the man responsible for having Gertrude vandalized by her husband in a monkey mask is back, accompanied by his reputation for bold, shocking, and physically intensive modernizations of classic stories. A reputation that drew both Hollyman and Horne to audition for Andromache.
“[Hamlet Project] was a catalyst for wanting to be in this production. It’s my favourite Hamlet I’ve seen,” says Hollyman. He heard about McLaren’s process through Hamlet Project actor and Andromache co-star Steven McCarthy and was intrigued. “His ideology of the readiness of acting, it’s almost athletic.”
For instance, he explains, every rehearsal begins with a game of Ball-y, which is an iteration of Foursquare (the playground game, not the social networking platform) that’s intended to keep the actors constantly on their toes.
“Everybody knows this myth about who Graham McLaren is and the work he does,” says Horne. “But the story, that’s just a fraction of what he actually does.” Four full days of the seven-week rehearsal period were intensely hard, base, and extremely physical; as actors strove to reach the play’s emotional core, they spent much more time poring over the script, arguing back and forth over character goals and desires.
“We get really quite argumentative with each other over what a line means or what the timeline might be. It’s just like were fighting about sports—it’s quite heated,” says Horne.
So they may not be involved in a 90-minute wrestling match in a literal sense, but that doesn’t mean the seven weeks of emotional anguish didn’t take its toll. “There is a point where [Hermione] is onstage and doesn’t leave for quite a while, and for that time [in rehearsal] I was that actress that just couldn’t stop crying. It was just so raw, everything that we’re doing. Now I can do it… but it is draining. We’re all kind of sweaty and beaten up by the end of it.”
While more structured than Hamlet Project, Hollyman says audiences can expect the same elements of raw emotion, danger, unexpectedness, as is McLaren’s style. Coupled with Racine’s provocative interpretation of war, love, and the human condition, we suggest heeding Hollyman’s advice: “Just be ready.”
Photos by Michael Cooper.