James Ryan Gobuty
Canadian Rep Theatre opens their new season with the tumultuous, opium-stained romance of the English poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, in the Toronto premiere of How Do I Love Thee? by Florence Gibson MacDonald. Playing to a sold out audience opening night, veteran director Ken Gass and Canadian Rep Theatre solidify their place as consistent innovators of independent theatre in Canada.
How Do I Love Thee? articulates the intensity of the ways that poetry and love can intersect to both build a life and tear it apart. The play begins before the famous couple had met, with Elizabeth (Irene Poole) living a cloistered life writing poetry and imbibing on laudanum (an opium infused spirit), while being attended by her maid Wilson (Nora McLellan), and Robert (Matthew Edison) enjoying the peak of his artistic success over vintage port with his friend John (David Schurmann).
The show develops the couple’s connection first through artistic admiration, then through a passionate epistolary exchange and finally through their expatriation in Italy. Despite the pair’s passion, the challenges of poetic inspiration, marital bliss and opiate dependency, ultimately mar the relationship of the star-crossed lovers.
Director Ken Gass is well known for being one of the finest crafters of theatre in Canada and How Do I Love Thee? is yet another testament to the importance of his work. Despite the Victorian setting of the play, Gass’ staging is thoroughly modern, embracing a dramaturgical style associated with the Epic theatre of famed 20th century playwright Bertolt Brecht.
This modernist touch is incredibly effective, as the conventions of overlapping scenes and the constant presence of actors allows the play to turn the passing back and forth of letters into well-paced dialogue.
Combining Gass’ masterful direction with the simple yet elegant stage design of Shawn Kerwin and the subtle yet effective lighting design of Cameron Davis, served to create a universe perfectly suited to the less than perfect Brownings.
Another of the successes of How Do I Love Thee? is on the part of the cast members, each of whom provides a stellar performance. David Schurmann and Nora McLellan perform wonderfully as the supporting characters, always providing a stable foil to the volatile main characters, while maintaining a careful, loving distance.
Irene Poole and Matthew Edison blow the show away with their no holds barred depiction of the Brownings’ rapturous partnership; Poole’s performance in particular was outstanding as she fully embodied both the genius and folly of one of England’s greatest poets.
The Canadian Rep Company production of How Do I Love Thee? brings a very Victorian romance into the 21st century. By combining a famous love story with modern theatre conventions and outstanding talent, How Do I Love Thee? proves to be an incredible production that is not to be missed.
The Canadian Rep Theatre production of How Do I Love Thee? is playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs Space (26 Berkeley Street) until Feb. 22. Tickets can be purchased online at canadianrep.ca or by phone at the Canadian Stage Box Office at (416)-368-3110.
photo credit: John Lauener