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October 24, 2002 Spend an evening with Irish spellbinder W.B. Yeats



W.B. yeats project

Yeats in the theatre – Focus on the words: Behind the masks, actors rehearse The W.B. Yeats Project. In alphabetical order are Stephanie Bogue Kerr, Laura Burke, Chris Cook, Jon de Leon, Sacha Engelhardt, Vanessa Johnson, Shannon Lynch, Ralph Prosper, Charlene Rockwell, Esther Scharf and Kim Sheppard.

(click to enlarge)

Photo by Rebecca Doll

by Clare Byrne

Michel Forgues, director of The W.B. Yeats Project, the first theatrical production to be staged in Concordia’s F.C. Smith Auditorium in eight years, had a confession to make: “Theatre bores me.”

Conventional productions that follow the author’s stage instructions to the letter leave Forgues unmoved. “When I go the theatre, I want to be surprised,” he said in an interview.

Forgues, former director of the Theatre de l’Université de Montréal (TUM), has done everything to ensure a novel experience for the spectator in this production, which opens tonight. This project, through its choice of author, choice of plays and staging techniques, is designed to surprise.

First, the author: William Butler Yeats. Yeats considered himself a dramatist first and foremost, but was infinitely more famous as a poet. The lyrical beauty of his poems, set in the context of the Irish independence movement, forged his reputation as one of Ireland’s finest writers and secured him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, but his plays are still a largely unknown quantity, so why Yeats to kick off the theatre season at Concordia?

“Yeats’ raw materials are Irish legends, full of ghosts and spirits, very hard to stage,” Forgues said. “The challenge for me was to stage these plays in a way that is plausible for the spectator.”

The four short plays which will be tackled by Concordia’s theatre students are Purgatory, The Words Upon a Window Pane, Dreaming of the Bones and The Shadowy Waters.

All feature phantasmagoric figures. Purgatory plays out the remorse of a son faced with the ghosts of the drunken father he killed and the mother who died giving birth to him. The Words Upon a Window Pane enacts a séance, in which the ghost of Jonathan Swift invests a medium as she tries to make contact with the other world.

Yeats was greatly influenced by Japanese Noh theatre. The Dreaming of the Bones is an example of Yeats’ plays for dancers, with Noh-like masks, dancing and chanting of verse. Finally, The Shadowy Waters, not so much a play as dramatic poem, speaks of the author’s disillusionment with the pursuit of love.

Actor, director and writer Forgues has produced over 50 plays. He cut a progressive figure at the Université de Montréal, where he taught drama for five years before becoming director of TUM in 1997. Two years ago, he resigned from the U de M to take a break from theatre. He started writing in 1997 and, like Yeats, writes both poetry and plays.

Now back in the director’s chair, 53-year-old Forgues said he’s “very, very pleased” to undertake his first English-language project at Concordia.

“The team is extraordinary,” he remarked about the actors. About the F.C. Smith Auditorium, which is located underneath Loyola Chapel, he exclaimed, “That theatre has got a soul!”
Forgues’ staging of the Yeats plays promises to be as unconventional as the plays themselves. “There is no décor — like in Shakespeare’s time, when they would announce a forest scene with a wooden beam marked ‘Forest’!”

The Theatre Department stages four or five plays annually. The 200 theatre students participate in all aspects of production, from set design to lighting and costume creation, giving them invaluable theatre experience.

The W.B. Yeats Project runs from Oct. 24 to Nov. 3. Tickets are rock-bottom. For details, call the box office, at 848-4747.