Catch one of Bollywood’s great actors in Toronto this weekend in Jerome Kilty’s Dear Liar
This weekend, Why Not Theatre brings Naseeruddin Shah and his wife, Ratna Pathak Shah – royalty of South Asian cinema – to town for a christening of Toronto’s newest theatre venue, the Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre.
The pair resurrect George Bernard Shaw and Stella Patrick Campbell in Dear Liar, a play chronicling their infamous, decades-long love affair. (It was also a well-documented affair: Dear Liar is based almost entirely on written correspondence between the married Shaw and his married mistress.) While the play has always been prey to mixed reactions, Why Not Theatre gives Dear Liar one of its best incarnations in recent memory.
First, the tricky parts. On paper, a play like Dear Liar has everything going for it: illicit love, fiery tempers, cockney accents and two world wars. But the play forsakes narrative for a literalist chronology, and like the lives it’s based upon, tends to meander from episode to episode, with little to give it a sense of order but the passage of time.
In its best moments – the hurried production of Shaw’s Pygmalion, for instance – Dear Liar gives its audience a glimpse of genuine conflict: the exacting playwright George Bernard Shaw demanding ever more of his mistress as she struggles to play Eliza Doolittle, Shaw straining their affections in the process. Elsewhere, though, the play provides little anxiety in its narrative, holds little at stake in its plot, and allows its characters to wander aimlessly apart as often as it forces them to strive together.
Dear Liar’s dialogue adds another challenge. The play is based on written correspondence, and letters – as the Twentieth Century knew them, at least: written on paper, at a table, in dim and flickering light – span space and time in ways an argument or a joke cannot. When Shaw and Campbell speak, their voices carry the distance and solitude of the written word; their speech is an intertwining of two lonely monologues in place of the sudden, heated words between lovers.
All this leaves Dear Liar’s cast with a tall order. But if the measure of an artist is whether or not he can work with what he’s given, Naseeruddin Shah proves just what an artist he is: hopping across the stage one moment, hobbling meekly the next, and never faltering in his living out of another man’s life. Most crucially of all, his portrayal of George Bernard Shaw, with its grumblings, its chuckles, and twinkles of the eye, adds humanity to the play’s otherwise zealous pursuit of historical accuracy.
At one point, when Ratna Pathak Shah almost certainly flubbed a line from Pygmalion, Naseeruddin corrected her, firmly, and in character, and in so doing brought George Bernard Shaw out of the script and into the theatre as a living being – as he would do again throughout the evening. Here is a man in love with theatre, and here is a study in how connected actors and audience can be.
Whatever its shortcomings in script, Why Not Theatre’s take on Dear Liar leaves you hungry for Beyond Bollywood’s second act – Ismat Apa Ke Naan, playing next weekend – and looking forward to whatever productions the very promising Regent Park Arts and Culture Centre offers up next.
– Dear Liar plays its final show at the Regent Park Arts and Cultural Centre (585 Dundas East) Sunday, September 30th, at 7:30pm.
– Tickets are $88 for premium seating, $44 for regular seating, and $22 with a student discount.
– Tickets are available online or through the box office at 1 (800) 838-3006