old goriot: a cautious vision

alex ferguson

Patti Allan (appearing with the permission of the CAEA) & Spencer Atkinson, Old Goriot

Patti Allan (appearing with the permission of the CAEA) & Spencer Atkinson, Old Goriot

Patti Allan (appearing with the permission of the CAEA) & Spencer Atkinson, Old Goriot

Don’t get excited. Stay calm. Watch. Listen. This seems to be director James Fagan Tait’s advice to the spectator in his production of Old Goriot — restrain yourself. His adaptation of Balzac’s 1835 novel is starkly placed in the dark expanse of the Telus Studio Theatre. Just a few essential set elements and a large cast decked out in period dress evoke Balzac’s Paris, while the dialogue, transposed to recent North American vernacular keeps us anchored in the present. A large scrim forms the back of the playing space, variously taking on a sombre palette of projections, which include baroque wall paper, an opera house, and a Parisian boulevard. To one side, a three-piece chamber orchestra of marimba, double-bass, and bass clarinet remains quietly present. A massive dining table drives forward from the scrim. The action of the play takes place on or around this stage-within-the-stage.

In the opening scene, about fifteen actors, inhabitants of Madame Vaquer’s lower middle-class boarding house, line three sides of this table, spooning and slurping their soup in unison, heads falling and rising mechanically. Individual heads then swivel one by one toward the audience as each character makes an introduction. But you’ve got to listen carefully, don’t rustle in your seat — these actors are deliberately keeping the volume down, forcing you to lean forward to catch every word.

What unfolds, in this hushed manner, is the story of Rastignac (Spencer Atkinson), a social climber seeking to marry any moneyed socialite who will have him. Despite the most calculating advice offered by his upper class cousin, the Comtesse de l’Ambermesnil (Anna Hagan), and criminal but advantageous arrangements made under the corrupting influence of the worldly Vautrin (David Mackay), Rastignac keeps getting tripped up by his romantic desire for true love. His affections end up falling on one of the daughters of Old Goriot (Richard Newman), a sombre and mysterious geriatric who also lives in the boarding house despite the fact that his daughters are fashionable ladies of Paris society. Rastignac will learn harsh lessons as he witnesses the daughters’ unfeeling betrayal of their father’s blind devotion. At one point Rastignac and Delphine (one of Goriot’s daughters, played by Cecile Roslin) argue across the body of the dying old man, she wanting to hurry off to the ball, he complaining, “I can hear your father’s death rattles.”

Despite this melodramatic sounding plot, almost every actor tenaciously underplays his or her part. No emotional ostentation — just simplicity of movement and an almost filmic vocal delivery. Director Tait establishes a tone of dispassionate observation and sticks to it. Even the musical numbers, composed by his longtime collaborator, Joelysa Pankanea, and hauntingly performed by her trio and the actors, are spare and contained. It’s Brechtian — that is if Brecht were to produce a period piece and perform it in slow motion. Old Goriot is full of Balzac’s shrewd analysis of the grim reality of France’s brutally stratified society, and Tait keeps us in an observer’s frame of mind by refusing to build dramatic momentum, and undercutting sentimental identification with characters that remain composed, slightly casual, offering only reference to anguish rather than fully embodying it.

Tait’s been working this aesthetic since Crime and Punishment, his 2005 adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel, which was a landmark production in modern Vancouver theatre history. One of the defining features of that production was the inclusion of five actors from the downtown eastside, a neighbourhood that has the dubious claim of being Canada’s poorest postal code. Of that production, Vancouver director/dramaturge D.D. Kugler remarked that watching the twenty-five member cast was like seeing a cross-section of the city on stage, something he’d never experienced before. Goriot is a mirror of that show, the main differences lie in the absence of the downtown eastside actors and the much more cynical bent of this play. Where Dostoyevsky’s novel builds to a spiritual crescendo, Balzac, through Tait’s filter, stays firmly planted on the unrelenting ground of modern class warfare.

In the case of Old Goriot, based on a novel some consider the father of the realist movement in literature, Tait’s approach serves the realist’s mission of looking at life ‘objectively’. He certainly strips Old Goriot’s death scene, masterfully played by Newman, of any sentimentality. Realizing his beloved daughters won’t be joining him for his final moments, the old man meanders between curses and expressions of undying love, as he tries to come to terms with the lonely predicament of his demise: “They’re not coming. I’m going to die like a dog.” His monologue is both interminable and engaging — I felt like I was watching the death of giant insect that had suddenly become aware of its own mortality: I was curious, mildly disturbed, and feeling just enough of an ache to raise a flicker of empathy. This scene was the highlight of the production for me. But a kind of low highlight. After all, Tait wouldn’t want us getting carried away by grief or laughter. Just stay calm. Listen. Assess.

23 January 2008