A poetic love story in time for Valentine’s Day takes the Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto
How Do I Love Thee? by Canadian Rep Theatre unfolds on the vast stage of the Berkeley Street Theatre. Irene Poole, playing the role of Elizabeth Browning, lies on a swing and recites poetry to the sky. Poole is bursting with passion. She cries out promises of greatness, but her excitement is brought down by her maid. The maid Wilson, played by Nora McLellan, presses a rag of ether to Poole’s face. How Do I Love Thee? begins with beauty and shows a hint of the ugliness that lies beneath it.
How Do I Love Thee? is about the love and marriage of poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I think we imagine love stories to be about a certain type of “love” — romantic and sweet making the audience long for something just as special. Robert and Elizabeth have that type of love in the beginning. They’re poets, after all: sweeping promises of affection spill from their mouths. Their love is grandiose and musical.
Florence Gibson MacDonald’s writing goes deeper into their relationship and into the idea of love and how it is more than simply chocolates and kisses, it can be terrible and tortuous. It can become toxic so that promises of eternal devotion can only be described as masochism. While MacDonald managed to illuminate the stage with words of romance, she also perfects the viciousness of a marriage turned sour.
Hearing the cruelties that Robert and Elizabeth spat at each other made me squirm in my seat. Robert was not the most pitiable character, but Matthew Edison played him so well that you wanted to comfort him. His insults to Elizabeth were tinged with sadness and betrayal. Irene Poole, on the other hand, was a wound filled with salt. She spat insults with such acidity that I could feel the sting after Robert left the room. If the play wasn’t so captivating, I would have escaped the theatre to escape the discomfort of the harsh bickering.
I have to commend MacDonald for weaving Elizabeth Browning’s drug addiction into the story. I had no idea that Elizabeth had a drug problem, since the fact seemed to have been a dirty secret brushed away from public knowledge. Drug addiction is not something that can be talked about in one scene, then forgotten about until the next act. It permeates life and lies beneath the surface when everything seems good. Although the presentation is done with poetry, the subject is given the seriousness of a work of non-fiction.
I’d like to also give credit to the set designed by Shawn Kerwin. The set is divided in a triptych. Three sections separate and merge three rooms together. On each side there is a tree made of twisted paper with the middle made of two reams coiled together. The tree hovers above Elizabeth and Robert, showing how they grow and twist together. The set is as captivating and poignant as the play itself.
How Do I Love Thee? is a great and terrible beauty. Every line was spectacular to hear and part of me wished to see it in print, so I could hold it for a little while longer. Instead I had to hear it for a second, so that it could be replaced with another piece of poetry. In the end, I would rather see the play than read it. At least with the play you can watch Matthew Edison and Irene Poole take over the stage. They will fill you with hope and break your heart. I highly recommend this play but be prepared to be shaken.
- How Do I Love Thee? by Canadian Rep Theatre is playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley Street)
- Performances run February 7 – 22, Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8pm with 2 pm matinees on Sunday. There will be a 1 pm matinee on Wednesday February 18.
- Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 416-368-3110. Tickets for shows range from $35 for matinees and $40 for 8pm shows.
Photo of Irene Poole and Matthew Edison by John Lauener