Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Montreal playwright Olivier Kemeid’s adaptation of Virgil’s The Aeneid (L’Éneide), at the Stratford Festival, is a powerful theatrical experience. Beautifully directed by Keira Loughran, the production uses ensemble movement and speaking, creative set and lighting design, and spare, poetic language to make Virgil’s epic relevant to today. First produced in French in 2009, in Maureen Labonté ’s translation, the play lets the audience empathize with the plight of seeing one’s home and city destroyed and risking a journey into the unknown to find a new, safe place.
Virgil’s epic poem (comparable to the Iliad and the Odyssey), written between 29-19 B.C.E., Photo by David Hou
tells the story of Aeneas, son of Prince Anchises (cousin of King Priam of Troy) and the goddess Venus. After Greeks conquer Troy, he flees the burning city with his father, a small group of friends, and his baby son. His wife, played by Monice Peter in a very moving performance, is killed as they try to escape. He and his band wander toward Italy, passing through Carthage (in modern Tunisia); in legend, he becomes the ancestor of Romulus and Remus, and is linked to the founding of Rome. In Kemeid’s play, Aeneas is still the central figure, but the story is about the whole refugee community, not royalty or war-heroes but ordinary men and women fleeing “our country.” Aeneas is capably played by Gareth Potter, who shows the character’s growth as the plot develops.
The play has five scenes: the first act shows Fire (the city’s destruction) and then Water (journeys by sea, including storms). Recent headlines have shown us the trauma of refugees crowded onto small boats, drowning in dangerous waters; the play shows us how this feels. The second act takes us to Earth, with refugee camps and bureaucrats. Aeneas lingers over a relationship with Elissa, a woman refugee he meets on the city streets; he almost gives up his quest to enjoy peace and quiet with her and his child. This echoes Aeneas’s dalliance with Princess Dido of Carthage in the original text. Lanise Antoine Shelley plays Elissa with passion and dignity.
Aeneas’s friend Achates, played by Saamer Usmani, comes to pull him back to his mission; Usmani’s bold intensity is a good foil to Potter’s quieter but still determined character. In the next scene, Underworld, based closely on Virgil’s poem, a Sibyl helps them seek advice from Aeneas’s father, who has now died. (Michael Spencer-Davis is a memorable Anchises). In the final scene, Blood, Aeneas finally reaches a land he can call home, but only after more fighting. His son, Ascanius, played by young Malakai Magassouba, appears at the end, as throughout the play, as a beacon of hope.
I loved the set of this play. There is one piece of scenery, brilliantly designed by Joanna Yu, a construction that changes from a burning house to a ship, a rock, a beach, an apartment building, a mountain top. The actors move around it and climb over it. Itai Erdal’s lighting emphasizes the changing moods and venues. Debashis Sinha’s sound design adds to the multi-dimensional effect. The work of singing coach Suba Sankaran and movement coach Tedi Tafel is evident in the dramatic ensemble work of the whole cast, many of whom play multiple roles (space does not permit naming them all). This play speaks to all of us, showing the world is a community, linked in space and time.
The Aeneid runs at Stratford’s Studio Theatre through October 4 (extended run).