Smyth/Williams brings cold, hard facts to Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille
In 2010, Russell Williams was arrested for two rape-murders, and other counts of sexual assault, confinement, and breaking and entering. One Little Goat Theatre Company’s Smyth/Williams playing at the Theatre Pass Muraille Backspace is a dramatization of the transcript of Williams’s interrogation by—and subsequent confession to—OPP Detective Jim Smyth.
It is infuriating, nausea-inducing, and exhausting, sitting on the uncomfortable line between a necessary performance and giving an unnecessary platform to a man who doesn’t deserve our attention.
Kim Nelson and Deborah Drakeford read the transcript, switching back and forth between Smyth/Williams as the facts of the case slowly and painfully unfold. They are joined on stage by Lynette Gillis, a drummer, whose thundering percussion illustrates entire censured sections of the text.
This is not a performance you can take lightly. Nelson and Drakeford present their roles with a cool confidence that, combined with the simple set-design of an off-kilter interrogation room by Jackie Chau and an eerie lighting design by Laird Macdonald, fills you with dread.
Everything in this show is inevitable. We already know that Williams was convicted. We can look up the interrogation online. And that’s what makes that dread so much worse. I was sitting in that theatre thinking, it’s hopeless. There’s nothing you can do as you listen to the interrogation unfold. What good is it, now? I wondered, near tears and feeling sick as Drakeford—playing Smyth—presents Nelson with the incontrovertible evidence of Williams’s role in the murders.
My guest loved the fact that women were front and centre, taking the words of a predator and murderer and turning it into a call to action. In fact, that appears to be director Adam Seelig’s goal, to subvert the sexual violence Williams embodies. In the program the company argues the show “raises awareness of, and challenges the toxic culture underpinning sexual violence against women and girls.”
Does it, though? While I think there’s a ton of merit in what I saw, I don’t know if you can subvert the words of predators like this because, sadly, it feels like it gives them what they want: they get the stage and the victims get side-lined.
Smyth/Williams works to disparage the violence. Drakeford and Nelson all but drip contempt as they detail aspects of the case, but who is hearing it?
Is this staging for the women in the audience who already experience the violence? Is it for the men who want to speak out? Is it for the audience that will never see a show like this because it challenges them?
I think One Little Goat handled the material wonderfully but there’s no easy answer to these questions, no guarantees subversion will actually subvert and not reinforce the status-quo. The risk inherent in this particular text makes for an incredible show.
There was a silence in the theatre as the actors left the stage. Maybe everyone was waiting for them to reappear for their bows, but it didn’t feel that way. There were no wayward, awkward claps, no gentle murmuring between couples; just dead silence.
I don’t think there are words for what you’re forced to hear over the course of an hour and a half. Somehow, One Little Goat has tapped into an almost primal rage, made so much worse because Smyth/Williams is a cold, hard, uncaring fact and there is nothing anyone can do to change that.
- Smyth/Williams plays until March 12, 2017 at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Ave.)
- Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm
- Tickets are $25 general admission, $20 for seniors, students, and arts workers; matinees are $15
- Tickets can be purchased by phone at 416-504-7529, at the Theatre Passe Muraille Box Office 4 hours before the performance, or online here
- Contains mature subject matter including graphic discussions of sexual assault and murder.
Photo of Deborah Drakeford, Lynette Gillis, and Kim Nelson Yuri Dojc