Circlesnake explores the life of astrologer John Dee in The Queen’s Conjurer on stage in Toronto
Continuing their impressive streak of challenging and entertaining works, Circlesnake Productions has taken on the task of exploring the mysterious Elizabethan scholar and mystic John Dee with The Queen’s Conjurer.
For those who have read other reviews by me, you may have noticed I have a habit towards writing on the more intellectual end, occasionally forgetting that one of our watchwords here at Mooney On Theatre is accessibility. When Circlesnake announced their latest production focusing on Queen Elizabeth’s Astrologer and the revered Alchemist John Dee I was eager to review the piece, but nervous that my predilection for intellectualism over criticism may rear its ugly head.
Thankfully, while there is no doubt that the team at Circlesnake have clearly done their homework and have tried to integrate the rich history of Dee into their narrative, you don’t need a History degree (or like myself a fascination with classic occultism) to understand or appreciate this play. Blending drama, humour and Elizabethan politics into a tight script that focuses more on individuals than grand scope, the production is a joy to experience no matter your education.
On the subject of the script, Circlesnake have a fascinating process, creating their text through structured improvisation and re-writing. As someone who did this exactly once in my time at school I can attest to how challenging it can be to create a contained narrative and the collaborative team deserves a great deal of credit for their skill. Joshua Browne and Alec Toller may be the listed playwrights but the entire cast deserves props for the hard work they clearly put into the creation of this piece.
An interesting choice the show makes in its narrative is that while John Dee is a major focal point of the story, in many ways the focus is on Edward Talbot, a man suffering what appears to be divine visions that equally enlighten him and torture him. When a new star appears in the sky above England, Queen Elizabeth tasks Dee to ascertain its meaning and through a nationwide hunt he discovers Talbot whose visions coincide with information Dee himself has gleaned through his own mystical interrogations.
Both Tim Walker and Joshua Brown deserve credit for their roles as Dee and Talbot respectively, incorporating searing emotion, talented physical work and humour into their performances. Equally talented and powerful are the other characters. John Fray plays a stunning double role of Lord Cecil and the sinister embodiment of Talbot’s visions, bringing an air of menace to the stage every time he appears in either role. Sochi Fried as Jane Dee is a powerful presence throughout the play, combining a scholar’s soul with a commentary on the inherent misogyny of Elizabethan England despite its Queen.
Speaking of the Queen, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah portrays the aforesaid monarch with aplomb, blending regal austerity with a wry wit that gives the character a humanity that could so easily be drowned out by the imperious nature of royalty. She contrasts this role with her second character, that of Talbot’s wife Joanna. Once again exploring the limitations placed upon women by Elizabethan society, the suffering she shows in both caring for and being rejected by her husband creates a wonderful examination of the relationship between John and Jane Dee as they are faced with a twisted mirror of their own marriage.
Framing all of these fantastic performances is the set created within the Attic Arts Hub. The space is literally an attic (so physical accessibility can be an issue). The low ceiling and wood flooring create a real sense of a lived in home, a sensation complimented by the worn furniture and other accoutrements that make the place feel real and living alongside its occupants.
One criticism my guest Samantha had was that the show seemed to rush itself a bit in the second act, perhaps a product of many of the major plot issues being established clearly in that act and being resolved soon after. Considering the slow and nuanced pace the first act took it did create a bit of a tonal disconnect between the two acts.
Act structure aside however, I strongly recommend The Queen’s Conjurer. It is a triumph of Circlesnake’s process and its cast and should be seen whether you’re fascinated with John Dee or merely looking for a great two hours of theatre.
- The Queen’s Conjurer is playing at the Attic Arts Hub (1402 Queen St. E)
- Performances run November 3-20, 2016, Wednesday through Sunday
- Showtimes are 8 PM (Wed-Sat) and 2 PM (Sun)
- Tickets are $30, $20 for Students and Arts Workers
- Tickets can be purchased at the door or online
Photo of Tim Walker, Joshua Brown and Sochi Fried by John Gundy.