For Canadian theatregoers, one of the great pleasures of Lee MacDougall’s High Life is watching your favourite actors play substance-abusing low-lifes without having to listen to them put on fake American, Irish or British accents.
MacDougall’s celebrated black comedy, receiving a welcome revival at Soulpepper, concerns a quartet of morphine addicts planning the ultimate hoser heist.
Premiering in Toronto in 1996 before spreading to stages across the country and internationally, High Life was perhaps the most prominent Canadian example of the theatrical trend at the time toward vulgar, violent and in-your-face plays across the English-speaking world.
The Tarantinos of the 1990s theatre included Tracy Letts in the United States, Jez Butterworth in Britain and Irish writers such as Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson.
While those playwrights all continued to develop into the new millennium, MacDougall turned out to be a one-off wonder. But, as director Stuart Hughes’s unremitting production shows, that single hit continues to provide a memorable, amoral rush.
Out of jail for just 24 hours, Bug (Michael Hanrahan) is already back drinking beers and shooting up with Dick (Diego Matamoros), an enabling friend who more than lives up to his name.
Dick enlists Bug to join two other “disciples of the evil Morph” in his latest money-making scheme – money being, ultimately, only a means to an end: more morphine.
Their fellow conspirators are Donnie (Oliver Dennis), a kindly, sickly man running on 40 per cent of one kidney who “borrows” wallets from church cloakrooms, but always returns them “because it takes forever to replace all those cards, eh?”; and Billy (Mike Ross), a younger, sexually ambiguous man yet to lose his looks or spend any time in jail, two attributes that makes him highly suspicious to both Bug and Donnie (who themselves aren’t suspicious of each other).
MacDougall’s play is full of debauched detail about these lives of desperation that is hilarious at the time, depressing to reflect on later. It’s also extremely well crafted: Dick’s ATM-related plot may not be a brilliant one, but it is plausible enough that you believe it would come across as brilliant to the characters in question.
Largely, High Life provides an opportunity for four offbeat performances. Dennis rises to the occasion as the whiny Donnie, providing the latest in a succession of comic coups at Soulpepper. As the loose cannon Bug, however, Hanrahan provides the strongest focus for the production, slowly simmering away: Even though our eyes never leave him for more than a moment, unlike the proverbial pot, he does eventually boil over.
There’s something less believable about Matamoros as an ex-con; he seems to have located Dick entirely in his voice, while physically he sort of wanders around without urgency. As for Ross’s twitchy Billy, he’s intriguing and elusive. His route to drugs runs through nurse’s bedrooms, though he’s not above sleeping with men to achieve his goal. As Dick diagnoses him, Billy is neither straight nor gay – just an addict. Indeed, his entirely personality seems to be an absence.
Hughes plays up the homoeroticism in MacDougall’s script, though to what purpose exactly is unclear. The only serious misstep in his relentlessly dark production is the decision to half-heartedly update the script with references to new devices like iPhones. This only results in anachronisms elsewhere, as well as nebulousness in Lorenzo Savoini’s set and costume design. High Life is stronger as a period piece, if only as a reminder that even during the economic high life of the 1990s, not everyone was along for the ride.
High Life runs through March1.
- Written by Lee MacDougall
- Directed by Stuart Hughes
- Starring Diego Matamoros, Michael Hanrahan, Oliver Dennis, Mike Ross
- At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto