Review: No Great Mischief (Tarragon Theatre)

Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre transports audiences to the shores of the Atlantic in this Alistair Macleod adaptation.

I was really looking forward to seeing No Great Mischief, David Young’s adaptation of the best selling Alistair Macleod novel of the same name.

I am from the Maritimes and a great lover of Canadian literature, but somehow this novel never quite made it onto my reading list. Its remount serves as Tarragon Theatre’s season opener and the lights went down with a buzz in the air.

The stage is grey with props hoisted at its sides – whisky and fiddles among them, a must do for any Cape Breton play worth its sea salt. I no longer live in the Maritimes but my Nova Scotian family rolls its eyes at the fiddle music and kitchen parties that the Upper Canadians drive out every August to see.

What about the sadness that can colour the area like the howl of the wind? The untimely deaths due to roads, ice and mines? The isolation? The lack of work and hope? A little less picturesque yes, but these aspects are also part of the history of the Maritimes and this is the sadness that permeates this piece. One death after another; so much sadness that the stories fight to be told.

I could feel this story fighting to be told and I have to say it felt to me like the playwright didn’t completely win. The idea of fighting for the laughter and history over the gloom is definitely there, but the finer details of the story felt as though they got washed away. There are many characters and many actors doubling up, so it seemed to get confusing at times – whom to latch on to? Or is it meant to be more of a parable for the loss of a great Scottish clan?

The one constant is R. H. Thompson’s Alexander Macdonald. He is the lost Everyman, trying to find the truth of his parents and the connection to his brother Callum, as played by David Fox. Both of these actors articulate their share of grief and confusion, but the love and connection seems lost from the get go – I felt as though I had nothing to mourn at the end, they simply felt like two souls wandering through time rather than brothers who truly loved one another. Perhaps this is true to life and the point of the piece, but watching this story felt like watching a road that led me to nowhere.

Of course brotherly love was only one part of the story – we also see the unfolding of the MacDonald Clan that rules one small and undetermined section of Cape Breton. They drink, they fight, they mine, they die, they play their fiddles and the cycle repeats.

There are two kinds of Maritimers – the ones who leave and the ones who stay – and this is the story of both. I think there were likely chunks of the narrative gone and I felt like I was watching the muscle of this story without its connective tissue. So many plot points to hit and, yet, the true understanding of each seemed incomplete to me. I couldn’t quite follow all of the family members or why they made the choices they made.

I absolutely loved Graeme S. Thomson’s lighting and lack thereof. The eerily lit greying stage, the dim lanterns and the twinkling stars felt so true to the cold sparsity of the Maritimes.

There is some pretty gratuitous fiddling – a long Ceileigh that results in the story’s turning point – but to me it felt more jarring than joyous – plunked in the middle of the graying story perhaps for some energy and life but it takes a long time. It feels like the kitchen party that is there for the patrons to enjoy and the musicality is great, but it somehow just didn’t feel right to me. The music was there but the soul somehow just wasn’t.

One thing that both my date and myself agreed on was that the acting in this is phenomenal. The eight actors articulate multiple roles at multiple ages with emotional precision and believability – a testament to each of them and the direction of Richard Rose. In fact, I would have personally liked far less plot and a lot more connections. It might not have served the piece in terms of narrative but it would have helped me connect to its soul.

That said, I am sure No Great Mischief is a fantastic read and I hope to finally dig into it soon. All eight performances make it a worthy night of theatre. And there is the bonus of some fiddling and Gaelic chanting which makes the ticket a cheaper option than a flight to Sydney.

No Great Mischief is playing at Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Ave) until Oct 21st, 2012.
– Shows run Tuesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2:30pm and 8pm, Sunday at 2:30pm
– Tickets range from $21 to $53
– Tickets are available b calling 416-531-1827 or online