Sex, Drugs, and Sonnets
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Sex, Drugs, and Sonnets

Ken Gass kicks off his second Canadian Rep season with a revisionist take on poet-lovers Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.

Irene Poole and Matthew Edison star as Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning in Canadian Rep Theatre's new production of How Do I Love Thee? Photo by John Lauener

Irene Poole and Matthew Edison star as Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning in Canadian Rep Theatre’s new production of How Do I Love Thee? Photo by John Lauener.

How Do I Love Thee?
Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs [26 Berkeley Street]
Runs to February 22

It’s nice to finally be able to talk to Ken Gass on a happy occasion. Three seasons ago, the legendary director was in the news when he was abruptly fired as artistic head of Factory Theatre—the company he’d founded in 1970 and later came back to rescue from financial ruin in the mid-1990s—after a bitter dispute with its board of directors over renovation plans. Toronto’s outraged artistic community swiftly came to Gass’s defence, signed a petition and boycotted the theatre, throwing its 2012-13 season into disarray. After a failed attempt to reconcile with the board, Gass put the debacle behind him and rebooted his long-dormant Canadian Rep Theatre.

Cut to this month and we have Gass launching Canadian Rep’s second season with a highly praised production of Florence Gibson MacDonald’s How Do I Love Thee?—a fiery romantic play that re-examines the complex marriage of Victorian superstar poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. Although Gass’s company got off to an uneasy start last year, this show, passionately acted and imaginatively staged, suggests it may be hitting its stride. If nothing else, it has put Gass in an upbeat mood as, at the age of 69, he once more sets out to establish a theatre dedicated to his lifelong crusade on behalf of Canadian plays.

How Do I Love Thee?, written by the Toronto-based MacDonald, re-examines the Brownings’ lives with a contemporary understanding of addiction (the playwright is a former medical doctor). Elizabeth Barrett, suffering undiagnosed illnesses from her teenage years, was addicted to the prescription painkillers of her day—laudanum and morphine—which, the play suggests, may have both influenced her writing and put a strain on her marriage. At the same time, MacDonald also portrays the tensions in an artistic union where one poet, Elizabeth (Irene Poole), was in the ascendant while her husband Robert (Matthew Edison) struggled with a sense of inferiority and writer’s block.

It’s rich material for a director to dig into and Gass was eager to talk about it during an interview with Torontoist, in which he also discussed the current state of Canadian Rep and his feelings about the Factory fiasco.

Director Ken Gass. Photo courtesy of Canadian Rep Theatre.

Torontoist: You originally commissioned this play at Factory Theatre, but it ended up having its premiere at Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary in 2010. I understand that for this production you had Florence do some rewriting and even restore stuff that she’d cut.

Ken Gass: ATP gave it a solid production, but they just didn’t get it quite right. They ended up panicking a bit and cutting a lot of key elements from the script. The second act didn’t make much sense. So for me, it was a question of going back to where she started with it.

Did you know much about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning before you read the play?

No more than what you’d encounter in a university English literature course. I knew the key Robert Browning poems and some of Elizabeth Barrett’s stuff. I liked Browning’s later writing a lot and obviously there’s much to admire in [Barrett’s Sonnets from the Portuguese].

So what is it about the play that appealed to you?

For me, it’s a portrait of a marriage and how, in the darkest and most difficult aspects of marriage—in this case, one complicated by addiction—the love gets displaced. And how, in a true marriage, that love somehow survives and resurfaces.

As an artist and an addict, Elizabeth makes that classic argument that she needs the drugs to create. She’s afraid if she quits she’ll lose her powers of imagination.

Yes, I think Lars von Trier said something recently about how he’d given up alcohol and now he’ll never create again—admitting to being totally stoned while making his films. People become high-functioning addicts. It’s like [Jean-Paul] Sartre saying he needed booze for novels and speed for philosophy, or something like that. Of course it’s not as simple as that. First it’s a dependency, then it becomes a lifestyle, and then you think you need it to survive. But ultimately the drugs just ravage your system. I think at some point Elizabeth just lets go and lets the drugs do their work.

This makes the play sound pretty grim, but actually you’ve made the first act very funny and giddy, as Robert and Elizabeth begin exchanging letters of mutual admiration and then finally meet.

I wanted to find the fun and euphoria, the joy in their courtship. It was heady and naïve. And what’s remarkable is that they’re both virgins in their thirties—she’s 39, he’s 33—so there’s the awkwardness in that, and how she’s more at ease in taking the plunge sexually than he is. They’re almost like teenagers. It’s only later that all the disillusions start to set in.

Irene Poole's Elizabeth gets her dose of opiates from faithful nurse Wilson (Nora McLellan) in a scene from How Do I Love Thee? Photo by John Lauener

Irene Poole’s Elizabeth gets her dose of opiates from faithful nurse Wilson (Nora McLellan) in a scene from How Do I Love Thee? Photo by John Lauener.

The play certainly benefits from the chemistry of Irene and Matthew. And you’ve got a couple of old pros from the Shaw Festival on board, too. [Nora McLellan as Elizabeth’s nurse, Wilson, and David Schurmann as John Kenyon, who served as a mentor for both poets.] You’ve worked with Irene several times before. Had you ever done anything with the others?

No, I only knew their work. Richard McMillan was originally supposed to play the Kenyon role, but he’s battling cancer right now. Instead I landed with David and he ended up being a lovely fit. Frankly I wasn’t sure if he was right for the role, but he just settled into it and found the vulnerability and sadness and secret yearning in the character. And Nora was a surprise; she was just a delight to work with. Both of those actors haven’t been asked back to Shaw, I’m not sure why, but they wanted to show they’ve still got their chops and, boy, they were just so giving to work with. I lucked out with the cast.

It must feel good to kick off your second season with a success.

For sure. And there were a lot of challenges [getting funding for it]. This play struck out at all three of the arts councils. People would say, “It’s a play about the Brownings—what’s that got to do with Toronto?” But I’d stake my reputation on Florence’s writing. A lot of people don’t realize that, except for the sonnet [“How do I love thee?“] and maybe six or seven other lines, all the words in the play are Florence’s. She calls herself a closet poet, and she wanted her language to meet up with Elizabeth’s sensibility. It’s just a gift to have a play with such rich language and yet that isn’t self-conscious about it. So it’s great to find the support for [the play].

How is Canadian Rep doing at this point? Are you building an audience?

We’re getting a lot of interest. There’s a lot of work to be done. We have a small core of subscribers and a lot of individual supporters. We’ve still got work to do to get more corporate support.

When you left Factory, you brought with you loyal playwrights like George F. Walker and Judith Thompson. Did you bring any subscribers with you, too?

Yes, we obviously did. Personally, I’m looking for ways of defusing any lingering stuff about the Factory. I’m trying to put out feelers—not in any way to suggest that what happened was appropriate, but at the end of the day we have to go on. And I’m going on in this direction. So I don’t wish the company ill and I don’t want to be perceived as doing that. It doesn’t help Canadian Rep if part of the [theatre] community is saying that poor Nina [Lee Aquino, Factory’s new artistic director] is being beat up by the press and it somehow relates to me. We have to go beyond that. It may take time and maybe more people have to leave that board, but I’m saying, let’s all take a deep breath and move forward. I can’t live in negativity. Yes, I was very angry at what happened and there were issues, but it’s happened and life goes on.

Have you ventured back to Factory to see any shows?

No, I don’t think I’m allowed on the premises, in fact. [Laughing] Maybe that will change down the road. Who knows?

The Canadian Rep season will continue with Armstrong’s War by Colleen Murphy (May 16-June 7 at the Citadel) and a revival of Nothing Sacred by George F. Walker (fall 2015, at a venue to be determined).