In Calgary: Ghost River Theatre and Alberta Theatre Project’s THE LAST VOYAGE OF DONALD CROWHURST

I’ve been in Calgary since January 13th 2015. I flew in from Frankfurt to work with Mark Lawes and Theatre Junction’s company of artists on their new creation Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, which premiered at the Grand at the end of February. I’m still here, now as Theatre Junction GRAND’s Artistic Associate, spending my days in the upstairs office, running up and down the stairs between Mark’s nook and my desk.

I haven’t seen that much theatre since I’ve arrived, other than the show I worked on and a few other presentations at Theatre Junction GRAND, but I’ve gotten enough of a taste of the arts scene to be completely surprised by what I’ve discovered here. Calgary, a city of innumerable food courts and dystopian mall-gardens, features a vibrant, quirky, and determined arts community of exciting, passionate, energetic, curious, and genuine creatives. I possibly should have known that, considering that one of the city’s major theatrical institutions is run by three brilliant women. But I didn’t. Goes to show how much work we have to do in learning about and reconciling the disparate theatre communities in Canada.

It’s not super unusual for me to see shows multiple times, considering that I’ve often directly or indirectly worked on them. But I rarely see shows more than once for my own personal, professional gratification. In the case of Ghost River’s The Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst at Alberta Theatre Projects, however, I went twice, just on my own accord. Because I felt that I didn’t see all of it the first time around. Because there was so much left to discover. Because I couldn’t quite put it together in my head – it felt like an unfinished experience: like a painting that had begun to emerge on canvas, but the strokes were too broad to reveal any detail. And because I have rarely seen a piece of theatre that was so alive with ideas, so full of hunger for theatricality, and as determinedly but satisfyingly unfinished and in-progress as Crowhurst. So rarely in Canadian theatre do craft and innovation meet as seamlessly and convincingly as they do here, resulting in an astounding, compelling, and incredibly heartening display of artistic desire and rigor.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Laird

Photo Credit: Benjamin Laird

It’s difficult for me to write about Crowhurst, because it has ultimately produced more questions than answers:

Where does art come from? Where does it originate? What is its function? Who is it for? To what extent does the function of art depend on local, national, and global contexts? To what extent is art an exploration of itself? Why do we make plays? What role does artistic process play in Canada today? How is it structured? And to what extent are the current conditions of theatrical production able to facilitate new, necessary models of process-based work?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, written by David van Belle and Eric Rose, is a (partly fictionalized) documentary play about Donald Crowhurst, a British businessman and amateur sailor, who dies while competing in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, an around-the-world yacht race. It’s also a story about hubris, greed, and selfishness – and by extension about patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism. It is also, as the fantastic opening lines of the script suggest, a story about imagination, the dangers of imagination, the connection between imagination and nature, and man’s relationship with his imagination (and thus with nature):

An ocean is not an ocean

It is not a location

It is a blue swooning universe

The siren the kraken the white whale

These are not the perils of the slow open ocean

No, the true danger is imagination

For on the ocean a man is not a man

He is a small god in his own small universe

An infinite uncharitable cosmos

In other words, the script is extremely thematically rich, nearly bursting at the seams with potential for exciting exploration: how are these themes interconnected? How, why, and where do imperialism and the dangers of imagination intersect, for example? Where do these interconnections lead? And especially, how or why do they relate to us today?

It is because of this thematic density that I would describe the play’s themes as being contained by a linear narrative. It is entirely possible that the script did make connections and draw parallels between these themes, but even after seeing the play twice, they didn’t land. I couldn’t see them. They didn’t reveal themselves to me. I couldn’t discover them. It’s only in my dramaturgical analysis of the play that I have now begun to see the potential of these explorations inherent in the play. In other words, it seems to me that the narrative of Crowhurst’s journey – so the play’s plot – took priority over its themes, thus existing somewhat in contradiction to them. This is interesting to me. How could that be? How could a plot and its themes potentially exist in opposition to each other, almost fight each other? Aren’t they one? Aren’t they one and the same thing?

Perhaps digging into my own writing from the past will clarify some of what I observed. A few months ago, I wrote a piece about narrative structure to my wonderful friend Daniel Karasik in which I said the following:

Maybe this law of coherence and clarity, which dominates Anglophone theatre and drama especially, actually reflects a subconscious acceptance of (and desire for) hegemonic structures—politically, economically, morally, ethically, and socially. Maybe we should actually be examining these (narrative) structures. Maybe we should be questioning hegemonies by way of (aesthetically) challenging narrative structures and vice versa.

Regardless—my point is ultimately that if the container of narrative coherence actually correlates with the content of a work, then I’m totally fine with it. In other words, if there’s a literary/dramatic/theatrical POINT to coherence, then I totally buy it. If coherent narratives are a kind of golden standard though—a container that’s taken for granted—then I’m totally not on board. USING coherence is key, I think. It can reflect a kind of longing for, or creation of, stability, for example. But then there needs to be made an actual point about that.

It seems to me that this is precisely the problem: the linear narrative progression of the piece is taken for granted here. But I’d go even further and suggest that especially in dealing with themes like patriarchy and imperialism – certain notions of conservatism, traditions, and “Englishness”, really – questions of narrative structure pose themselves more obviously. They exist even more explicitly in relation to questions of hegemony and hierarchy. So don’t the rules of narrative demand to be broken here? Why is this story told in a linear fashion? What do we gain from that structure, theatrically (and thus politically)?

Another thing to keep in mind is that we basically know the story of Donald Crowhurst going into the theatre – we know what’s going to happen; Donald’s fate isn’t exactly a mystery. Thus, the narrative outcome of the piece is small; it’s somewhat unsurprising. And because it’s unsurprising, it almost demands a secondary outcome, a kind of “take away” or “moral” at the end of the story – which is incredibly tricky, because the large themes of the play have only barely been displayed thus far, but not at all explored.

I’d be curious to see the piece done in reverse order, starting with Donald’s suicide and working backwards. I wonder what would happen to the writing and structure of the piece, whether a type of storytelling would emerge that was more concerned with the thematic density of the piece than its linear progression – one that would directly address and explore the intricate moral, ethical, and political complex that the script contains. How would a more direct engagement with the play’s themes affect the narrative outcome? What direction would the types of tableaus and vignettes develop that Eric and David have crafted for this version of the play? How would a reverse order affect and develop the roles of the documentarians?

Ultimately, following a linear narrative structure contained and thus undermined the theatrical potential of Crowhurst. The opening lines of the script quoted above, which are so rich, particularly in the context of the piece’s theatrical aesthetic – bare stage, projections, multiple live feeds – ultimately felt a bit like a red herring: they remained underexplored and thus served only as bookends. They seemed to state what the play wanted to be about, but ultimately couldn’t be.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Laird

Photo Credit: Benjamin Laird

That being said, The Last Voyage Donald Crowhurst is a remarkable achievement, and contains more than just a few moments of exceptional theatrical brilliance. I have seen live feeds and video projections used in the theatre in many different ways – in Germany they’re basically standard equipment, and have been so for a while. Frank Castorf, for example, regularly uses live feeds, and does so in a highly conceptual manner. In his production of Journey to the End of the Night, for example, he uses live feeds to explore a live, on-stage reality-TV trash aesthetic – with great success. Narrative begins and dies in Castorf’s work; it’s a relentless “journey” of trying and failing, as disjointed, episodic, and hopeless as any type of “reality TV”. Rene Pollesch, also of Castorf’s Berliner Volksbühne clan, often uses live video as well, such as in the case of Je T’Adorno at Schauspiel Frankfurt. My most recent encounter with live video in theatre was also at the Schauspiel, in Kay Voges’ production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Though I theoretically consider myself a Voges fan, his use of live video in this production left me unsatisfied. The stage and screen existed somewhat in opposition here, drawing attention away from each other, rather than complementing one another. This may have very well been Voges’ point: the stage today exists in competition with the screen. However, I couldn’t make out the connection between that conceptual motive and Williams’ script. The production was coherent; the audiences’ focus was not. Neither of those experiential factors contributed to a concerted whole; they just remained given facts that never culminated in any kind of particular theatrical experience. The production never told me why it needed to use video; it just did.

Rarely have I seen live video used in such explicitly, devotedly theatrical ways as in Crowhurst. Perhaps never before have I witnessed such desire and determination to explore this technology’s dramaturgical functions. In one brilliant scene, for example, Crowhurst and his wife Clare are in bed, discussing Crowhurst’s plans to sail in the race. Onstage, the two are separated, and they actually require the help of other actors to reach each other. In the live projection of this moment, however, the two form a cohesive whole: they are together in a constructed image of marital intimacy.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Laird

Photo Credit: Benjamin Laird

There are many such moments in the piece, which moves ahead at an incredible, almost frenetic pace — possibly in part because of the immense narrative load. Moments come and go more quickly than one can fully figure them out; every stage image has such depth of meaning that it disappears before the spectator has exhausted everything it has to offer. This is fantastic: a truly theatrical experience, the play offers endless material to be decoded by the public, and uses its technology to do so without ever becoming illustrative. And this is precisely what sets this work apart from any other I’ve seen in Canada: David van Belle, Eric Rose, and their entire team are thirsty for theatre – and passionate about it as a unique form of social communication.

This desire for theatricality is further exemplified in the play’s ensemble work. All members of the team, and all parts of the stage work together in concert to construct the story in front of our eyes. This show never plays “pretend” (except in the case of the British accents); instead, it “suggests” and “alludes”, thus requiring its spectators to put things together and ultimately tell the story themselves.

To me, theatre is not about plot. Drama is about plot – and drama is a literary form. Theatre has got to be about something more than drama; it has to commit the act of translating drama from the page onto the stage. And that’s what I see artists like Eric, David, Wlad, and their team doing. They are wrestling with the art form in ways that are unusual in Canada – and beyond. And what’s more exciting: they are passionate about the process of exploring theatre. Their relentless creativity and commitment to creation is shaping new ways of making theatre. These types of devising processes are absolutely integral to the success and survival of the art form as a living entity. 

Congratulations to everyone involved in this production, and kudos to ATP for helping to make it happen. I hope this piece will have a long life – and that many others will get to see it, too.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Laird

Photo Credit: Benjamin Laird



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