As 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt is a rebellious play about a rebellion, it’s only natural to thirst for a new brand of boldness when viewing the show in 2017 – one that has the potential to make its impact on Canadians today.
And this Shaw Festival production could have been even more powerful, had a more Indigenous cast been playing its white power roles, especially as we celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday and struggle with the controversy over what that means to our Indigenous communities.
Instead, Director Philip Akin did the next best thing. While sticking with certain aspects of the original production, which saw actors playing multiple parts and transcending gender roles, he carves into the next logical element that requires tackling: race.
And so we are graced with a multicultural ensemble of various ages playing dozens of roles, regardless of gender and race. While an impactful choice, it’s also a peaceful one – and this play deserves to pack a bigger punch.
Created by Rick Salutin in 1973, The Farmers’ Revolt chronicles the Upper Canada rebellion of 1837, which was led by journalist William Lyon Mackenzie. Provoked by a hunger for justice amid land swindling caused by a corrupt and self-serving government, the farmers of Upper Canada launched a largely unsuccessful revolt in the name of equality, which, in turn, has shaped Canada’s history.
The Farmers’ Revolt was created at the inception of Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, and grew out of an improvisational play called The Farm Show, where the theatre artists involved visited families on farms in Clinton, Ont., and wove together stories based on real-life interviews. It was a real game-changer for the industry at the time.
Now, as we prepare for Canada’s sesquicentennial, it’s the perfect time for Canadian audiences to sit before this historical account about lands so familiar and so close to them today.
This production is beautifully staged, directed and performed. Rachel Forbes’ set design is straight out of an Indigenous painting. The swirling colours and wooden design are not only stunning, but are also a well-needed static symbol throughout the piece.
The ensemble (Donna Belleville, Sharry Flett, Jonah McIntosh, Marla McLean, Ric Reid, Cherissa Richards, Travis Seetoo, Jeremiah Sparks) is a diverse group of actors with varying years of experience under their belts, from Jonah McIntosh and Jeremiah Sparks, who are making their Shaw debuts, to veteran actor Sharry Flett, who is in her 28th season. They come together powerfully and deliver tremendous performances in all aspects.
There is such a striking physicality to this show that makes the tragedy poetic at times.
From the way the actors seamlessly switch from character to character, to their slow-motion fight scenes and a haunting final hanging scene, the actors deliver phenomenal performances – and the choreography by Movement Director Esie Mensah is arresting.
The battle scene is truly the pièce de résistance, as red lights wash over the stage and actors move in perfect harmony with the sound design – quite literally, dancing with death.
1837: The Farmers’ Revolt plays at Shaw Festival's Court House Theatre until Oct. 8. For more information, visit http://www.shawfest.com/.