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Denise Clarke and John Murrell in One Yellow Rabbit's production of Taking Shakespeare. (Benjamin Laird/Benjamin Laird)
Denise Clarke and John Murrell in One Yellow Rabbit's production of Taking Shakespeare. (Benjamin Laird/Benjamin Laird)


Act One for a behind-the-scenes legend Add to ...

In 1999, with 15 original plays and 20 translations of other playwrights’ work to his credit, John Murrell, then 54, decided to retire from the theatre. “I was tired and a little disillusioned with what was going on in the arts, which I decided were for people younger than me,” he says.

After two weeks, he was a physical wreck. “It didn’t feel like there was any reason to be alive except to work on another show, and that’s when I began working in opera,” says Murrell, who went on to write the librettos for Filumena, Frobisher, The Inventor and Lillian Alling, which have played everywhere from Calgary and Vancouver to the National Arts Centre. “And now,” he says, “at slightly past my mid-60s, onward to claiming my acting career.”

For the first time, the winner of the 2008 Governor-General's Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award will be bringing one of his characters to life on the stage, playing the lead role in the world premiere of Taking Shakespeare, part of the 26th annual High Performance Rodeo, Calgary’s International Festival of the Arts, which runs until Jan. 28.

“I’ve shied away from performing in my own stuff because it generally requires brain-hemisphere separation, if not dissection,” says Murrell, who describes the “sacred art of punctuation” – insert comma here – as the only acting a writer gets to do.

Not this time. Appearing in Taking Shakespeare is like doing trapeze work at the top of the tent, with Murrell’s old friends, Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit ensemble, providing the safety net. “They’re part of my gang and I’m part of their gang,” says Murrell, who, in four days, banged out the first draft of the play, a not-so-straightforward two-hander about a jaded university professor attempting to teach Othello to an uninterested student named Murph. “I eliminated all personal pronouns as creatively as I could, both in stage directions and in the lines,” he says. “I was fascinated with how the play would change if Prof were male or if Prof were female.”

OYR’s Denise Clarke first read the piece with the intention of tackling the lead role. “But all I could hear was Johnny’s voice, and I had this crazy theory that he’d play Prof and I’d play the boy,” she says, not realizing that the real acting challenge would be for a woman in her early 50s to channel Murph (a nice twist on the Shakespearean tradition of men playing female parts).

Murrell wrestled for 10 days to find what appealed to him about the initially “appalling” prospect of playing a character he had created. “It suddenly all made sense,” he says. “It’s for the Rabbits, it’s for the Rodeo. It is both an experiment and will be a finished work of art, which is what these guys do.”

For director Blake Brooker, the appeal lies in the nuanced ways Murrell explores what still matters in a culture that increasingly seems to value only what’s new. If that sounds too literal, it won’t on the stage: OYR sound designer Richard McDowell created musical manifestations both of Prof’s baroque sensibility and Murph’s fixation with video games. The characters’ worlds mix, mingle and meld to a soundtrack of 17th-century hip hop.

Taking Shakespeare is also a genre piece, like Goodbye, Mr. Chips and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, “but there’s a bend in the middle,” says Brooker. “In most works, there’s always an end point where the person’s hoping to be with someone. This one doesn’t have that, but it doesn’t feel bad – it promises the possibility of life without that straitjacket of having to have that person there.”

Prof’s most meaningful relationship is with words, particularly the jewel-like poetry in Othello, which, according to Murrell, is the most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays to take in. “By the time you’re old enough to understand it, you’re too old to feel it. Or even to remember how it felt,” Prof tells Murph. “We’re too old to teach it by the time we’re old enough to understand it. Like a lot of things.”

Watching Murrell, on the other side of 65, punctuating the power of his words out loud on the Rodeo stage is a revelation in more ways than one. “He’s really good,” Clarke whispers. “So we’re not interested in using this as a fun, token notion. He has no idea what I have in mind.”

This just makes the Rabbit emeritus laugh. “Until we get through this month, I’m thinking it’s a swan song,” Murrell says.

“But maybe, at a certain point in life, everything is a swan song,” says Brooker, still immersed in Murrell’s rich Shakespearean themes.

Taking Shakespeare runs Jan. 10 to 28, hprodeo.ca.

Rodeo Highlights

Laurie Anderson makes a multimedia return to Calgary as the 2012 Artist in Residence. Take advantage of the Super Fan package, which includes a performance of Another Day in America, her new work in progress (Jan. 11-14); entrance to The Gray Rabbit video installation at the Glenbow Museum (Jan. 18 to April 9); and a seat in the audience for an intimate conversation on Jan. 17. Superinterested fans can sign up for Anderson’s $125 performance tour of the Cantos Music Foundation (Jan. 15). Sadly, for those who want to see whether there’s a little Julia Child in the artist who gave us O Superman, a $250 dinner on Jan. 15 is sold out.

In keeping with the Rodeo’s credo of local and international collaboration, Theatre Calgary presents Ubuntu (The Cape Town Project), featuring Canadian and South African artists in a joint production that has been described as “deeply compassionate and brazenly beautiful.” Jan. 11-15.

• The must-see performance piece, according to Rodeo insiders, is Your Brother. Remember? New York actor Zachary Oberzan, accompanied by old home movies spliced with the action films of Jean-Claude Van Damme, explores his troubled, often violent relationship with his brother Gator. Jan. 12-14.

• Every year, the Rodeo rounds out its theatrical lineup with modern dance. This year, it’s Here to Stay, a collaboration between Calgary’s W&M Physical Theatre and Finland’s Flow Productions. Jan. 19-21.

• Madeleine Sami, the Mindy Kaling of New Zealand, performs all nine characters in her award-winning one-woman show, No. 2. Jan. 25-28.

• Everyone who follows Mayor Naheed Nenshi on Twitter will want to be at The Art of the City, a series of conversations featuring Chris Turner, Mark Kingwell, Douglas Coupland and Lisa Moore presented by The Walrus and Enbridge on Jan. 24.

Shelley Youngblut

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