Sir Tom Stoppard is one of Britain’s best-loved playwrights and screenwriters, known for rapid-fire dialogue that also carries deep philosophical truths. Apart from his screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, he is perhaps best-known for his Tony Award-winning play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a philosophical comedy that brings two minor characters in Hamlet into the limelight.
A quarter century ago, Whitehorse actor/director Mary Sloan mounted R&G at the Guild Theatre, her first directing stint in the Yukon capital. Several productions later, she’s back with a brace of Shakespeare-tinged plays by Stoppard, Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth. When the Guild’s artistic director, Brian Fidler, first approached her about doing the back-to-back plays, she wasn’t familiar with them.
“I took a look and I thought, ‘what the [expletive] is going on? I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.’ I’ve never had that response, and it just made me feel sick,” Sloan admitted. “And it scared me. It really scared me, like no other play,” she said.
About that time, she was strolling through the Highland Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles, where her actor daughter, Amy (who played Ophelia in the Guild production of R&G), lives with her husband and son. Her wanderings took her past a large mural of boxing legend Muhammad Ali that included his quote, “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.”
She agreed to take on the assignment. As part of her prep, she watched a YouTube video of Dogg’s Hamlet, done by middle-school kids instead of adults playing juvenile roles, as had been done on Broadway. “Those kids just jumped into it and ran with it. And it was like an angel choir came out and the clouds lifted, and I thought, ‘I’m going to do it with kids. Kids are going to get it; they’re totally going to get it,’” she said.
As a long-time instructor in the Music, Art and Drama (MAD) program, Sloan was used to working with younger actors. After auditions, she picked four “amazing” actors ranging in age from nine to 17 to be part of the Dogg’s Hamlet ensemble. “Every rehearsal, they’ve got me in stitches and they’ve got me delighted and they’ve totally got me engaged,” Sloan said.
Dogg’s Hamlet concerns a group of private school students who decide to present a 15-minute version of Hamlet as part of their school’s awards ceremony. Stoppard’s twist is that the kids speak their own language, called Dogg, which uses English words, but distorts and inverts their meaning. For example, insults become compliments, and vice versa. Into the preparations comes Easy, a lorry-driver who speaks only English. Hilarity ensues. When the truncated Hamlet actually plays (in Elizabethan English), it’s such a hit, the kids do a two-minute version as an encore. While Dogg’s Hamlet is a romp, the companion piece, Cahoot’s Macbeth, is more political. First produced in 1979, it was influenced by the 1968 Prague Spring uprising in Stoppard’s native Czechoslovakia.
Stoppard was born Tomáš Straussler in 1937. His family fled when the Nazis invaded their homeland in 1939. After his father died in a Japanese internment camp, his mother remarried and the family moved to England when the future playwright was nine years old. As a journalist and developing artist, Stoppard explored such themes as censorship, human rights and state repression, often with a light, comedic touch. He also maintained a keen interest in Czech theatre and literature.
Cahoot’s Macbeth arose from his admiration of Pavel Kohout, a dissident playwright Stoppard had met in Prague in 1977. Along with a group of actors who were considered subversive and forbidden to work, Kohout formed an underground company called the Living-Room Theater. His story was the inspiration for the Stoppard play.
“It’s set in a time when public theatre is banned. Actors have lost their jobs, and they’re doing menial jobs like selling newspapers at a kiosk, or shining shoes,” Sloan said. “But they’re actors, so they’ve got to act. They’re putting on a play in a lady’s living room and that’s dangerous, too. The play opens and you’re seeing a production of Macbeth. Then the lights go up and you realize you’re in a living room.”
Two policemen arrive, plus an inspector who warns them not to perform Macbeth, or Julius Caesar, or anything else that might be considered as disparaging the communist state. Enter Easy, the lorry-driver from Dogg’s Hamlet, with a load of firewood. In a typical Stoppard turnaround, Easy now speaks only Dogg, rather than English. The actors soon catch on, leaving the inspector “really mad, really flummoxed, really confused” when they start performing Macbeth in Dogg, rather than Shakespearean English.
Except for Easy, the two plays have separate casts, adding up to a total of 21 players. If that didn’t present enough traffic challenges on its own, the Guild production also includes a real truck. Sloan hopes audiences will have a “fulfilling, exciting, laugh-filled and thought-filled night of theatre.”
But as someone raised in the U.S., who is concerned by current events in both that country and Canada, she has other aspirations for the audience as well.
“I really want them to appreciate what the kids have done in this and to maybe go home and have some discussion about theatre and censorship and where we’re headed and all the directions we could go politically in the next few years.”
Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth will be on the Guild Hall stage from Thursday, November 28 through Saturday, Dec. 14. Curtain is at 8 p.m. sharp.
Complete cast list and other details can be found at GuildHall.ca.