Review: Bethune Imagined (Factory Theatre)

Toronto’s Factory Theatre offers an intoxicating glimpse  into the private life of an icon

By George Perry

Sascha Cole and Ron White as Margaret Day and Norman Bethune

Ken Gass, Artistic Director for Factory Theatre, must be pleased with the dividends that Bethune Imagined is paying.   He wrote and directed this extraordinary play.  Certainly Gass is a Toronto Theatre icon as much as Norman Bethune is a communist icon.  Catch a glimpse of genius at Factory while you have the chance.

It’s always a treat visiting Factory Theatre.  There’s something very special about this gem that makes me proud to be a Torontonian.  Just won The Grey Cup eh?  Going to Central Florida?  Nope, Bathurst and King!

The play is a glimpse into the private life of a passionate addict.  Bethune was addicted to life, and all the finer things in it.  Art, women, music, the common good, he loved them all.   It is a play about global affairs and affairs of the dirtier sort.

Apparently Bethune was an alcoholic.  There’s no doubt that he was passionate about living.  There’s also no doubt that Ron White’s portrayal of Bethune believable.  As a fellow drunk, I should know.

I researched this play before attending, not knowing much about Norman Bethune.  His accomplishments are too numerous to mention in a two hour play, let alone this review.  It is a shame that our schools have the mission of turning out people based on their earning potential rather than giving us a firm grasp on history or even humanity. 

Ken Gass deserves praise for encouraging what it means to be human.  He has done so by bringing this play to stage.  Bethune saw the flaws in our system and created an art school for children in his apartment.  He shared his medical expertise with people around the world.  The Chinese consider Bethune a hero, Canadians consider him a footnote.

So going in, I was sort of expecting a lecture, a history lesson.  As a result of my research, I got that.  As a result of seeing this play, I caught a glimpse into the private life of an icon.  Bethune is no longer a face stamped onto the back of a cold coin or printed on a postage stamp. 

Understanding and compassion are two powerful forces.  Gass shares both with his writing and direction.  Bethune the man is now just that, a man.  He was flawed, to be sure, but he is still an icon, a role model. 

Being a communist in Canada in the dirty 30’s, odds were stacked against Beth.  Seeing the set, I realized that odds were stacked against this play.  The stage felt like being in an LCBO, Starbucks or Indigo.  Stylized words and phrases stencilled on the walls intended to inspire, but having the opposite effect.  Imagination be dammed!  The set had nothing to do with 1930’s Montreal, but everything to do with (failed) 21st century retail.

One almost wanted to say to the actors “can we go somewhere and talk?”  The images and sounds that are supposed to give us a sense of the anxiety of the times seem secondary.  They came across as being created without passion and as an afterthought.  Is this art or overpriced coffee?

Fiona Byrne, who mesmerized in another production earlier this year, gave me a similar impression that she wasn’t fully invested in this production either.  She seemed to forget her Scottish accent when first appearing onstage, then drifted in and out of it.  Not her best night.

On the other hand, Sascha Cole in the role of Margaret Day was exceptional.  She conveyed a level of emotional and intellectual sophistication that had us all considering her a friend, someone we can relate to.

There are three very strong female characters here.  If this were present day, all three would be heralded as groundbreakers, feminists, role-models.  That this happened 70 years ago or more is a testament to just how confident and groundbreaking they were.  Bethune fought oppression in Spain and China, but his lovers, Marian, Margaret and Frances, fought it at home. 

Or at least I thought so.  I overheard the woman behind me say to her friend “Don’t you wish you owned a skirt like hers?”  Who let my sister-in-law into the theatre?  Sisters are doing it for their stitchers.

Another reason to LOVE Factory Theatre is their commitment to building a vibrant neighbourhood.  On Nov 23, local residents will be able to enjoy a performance of Bethune Imagined free of charge.  Call 416-504-9971 for details.

It was a dirty, sordid time in Bethune’s life, but from dirt, fruit and vegetables grow.  
There was a thunderous, heartfelt ovation at the end of the performance, and it was deserved.

Details:

-Photo of Sascha Cole and Ron White in Ken Gass’s world premiere of Bethune Imagined at Factory Theatre, Nov. 13 – Dec. 12, 2010. Photo by Ed Gass-Donnelly.

Bethune Imagined plays until December 12th at Factory Theatre
Performances are at 8:00 PM with a matinée on Sundays at 2:00.
Tickets range from PWYC to $40.00 and are available online, at the Box Office, or by phone – 416.504.9971

2 thoughts on “Review: Bethune Imagined (Factory Theatre)”

  1. Strange that the actor actually playing Bethune is not even mentioned or is there a section of the review not present online. Disappointing.

  2. Hi Ron,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read this review. Even bigger thanks for bringing this oversight to our attention.

    Hopefully the changes above meet with your satisfaction.

    George

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