Ottawa theatre season has international focus

Ottawa's National Arts Centre has unveiled a 2008-9 theatre season that focuses on international work and international artists, including plays from South Africa and India.

BY SUSAN NOAKES — Ottawa's National Arts Centre has unveiled a 2008-09 theatre season that focuses on international work and international artists, including plays from South Africa and India.

The international season, part of artistic director Peter Hinton's long-term plan to make the NAC a force in Canadian theatre, follows a 2006-07 season that was devoted to Canadian plays and a 2007-08 season that focused on classical works.

Street performers and acrobats in Tim Supple's A Midsummer Night's Dream, coming to Ottawa from India. ((Tristram Kenton/NAC))

The play from India is actually also a classical work — Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Director Tim Supple has recreated the beloved comedy using 23 street performers, actors, acrobats, dancers and musicians from India and Sri Lanka.

"So often we see Shakespeare only from the British cultural tradition," Hinton said in an interview with CBC News.

This production "reacquaints us with something familiar and shows us what makes it [A Midsummer Night's Dream ] an enduring comedy," he said.

Hinton first saw the Indian production at the Royal Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, U.K., where he has a connection through the joint NAC-Royal Shakespeare production last year of The Penelopiad.

He drew on another connection — Maurice Podbrey, formerly of Montreal's Centaur Theatre and now retired in South Africa — to bring the South African play Tshepang.

Written and produced by Lara Foot Newton, a South African artist whose work has been staged in London and New York, the play is inspired by the shocking true story of the rape of nine-month-old Baby Tshepang. Podbrey recommended it for the 2008-09 season at the NAC.

"It's a landmark piece from contemporary South Africa," Hinton says of the play, which combines African storytelling with contemporary events.

Blue Dragon is a sequel to The Dragon's Trilogy by internationally renowned producer Robert Lepage. ((NAC))

The NAC has commissioned two premieres for the coming season, one a new work by Canadian producer Robert Lepage.

"Lepage has brought such incredible exposure to Canadian theatre on the international stage," Hinton said. "It's impossible not to think of him when thinking of Canadians who've made a mark internationally."

Lepage, who has created works for Cirque du Soleil and the Olympic Games, will create a piece called The Blue Dragon, debuting in English at the NAC in March 2009.

The Blue Dragon is a successor to Lepage's 1985 theatrical work The Dragon's Trilogy, and follows the central figure of Pierre Lamontagne, the artist who at the end of the earlier play leaves to study art in China.

Twenty years later, Lamontagne is in Shanghai, in a neighbourhood known for its avant-garde art. Lepage and his Ex Machina production company have been working for two years on The Blue Dragon, and there have been readings of the play in Quebec.

The Blue Dragon premieres in French at the NAC ahead of its English premiere and will go on to stagings in France and Quebec.

The other premiere is Billy Twinkle, Requiem for a Golden Boy, a marionette work by Medicine Hat native Ronnie Burkett, who has an international following as a puppet artist.

Fiona Byrne as Pearl in Belle Moral: A Natural History which is coming from the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. ((David Cooper/Shaw Festival))

"Four theatres pooled their resources to create this work with puppets. It's the sort of thing that was unheard of 15 years ago," said Hinton, referring to the increasing international co-operation that helped stage and commission Burkett's work.

Edmonton's Citadel Theatre, the Vancouver East Cultural Centre and theatre groups in Melbourne and Sydney are collaborating with the NAC.

Also in the NAC 2008-9 season:

  • The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by George Ryga: The first work presented at the NAC in 1969, this story of a First Nations woman on the streets of Vancouver is often hailed as groundbreaking Canadian play. It is being restaged to celebrate NAC's 40th anniversary.
  • Buried Child by U.S. playwright Sam Shepard: This Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a powerful, funny commentary on a dysfunctional American family.
  • Belle Moral: A Natural History by Ann-Marie MacDonald: Canadian playwright MacDonald has set Belle Morale in Scotland, in an ancestral home where a young woman is torn between science and myth. The production is by the Shaw Festival.
  • The Changeling by Selma Lagerlof: A children's production, it weaves Nordic legends and history into a story about a not-so-ordinary farm family.