The grisly fate of the men in the lost Franklin expedition is usually the stuff of horror stories, not love stories. But Geoff Kavanagh's Ditch takes the raw facts of that doomed 19th-century quest for the Northwest Passage and weaves a pathetic, tender tale of two British sailors sharing a forbidden love. You'd be tempted to call it an Arctic Brokeback Mountain, if the play didn't predate that film by a decade.
Kavanagh's 1995 Chalmers Award-winning drama – receiving its first Toronto revival by Sometimes Y Theatre – speculates on one of the grim discoveries made in the years after Sir John Franklin and his crew went missing: a lifeboat in a ditch on King William Island, containing two skeletons. In Kavanagh's imagining, they belonged to a pair of not-so-able-bodied seamen rather amusingly named Whitbread and Hennesey (Kavanagh must have written his play in a pub).
When we meet them, a sick Whitbread (Clinton Walker) is on the verge of death, while Hennesey (Robert Tsonos) has had his foot crushed. They've been abandoned by their starving shipmates, who've curtailed a desperate trek across the tundra and gone back to the ice-bound ship in search of food. As Hennesey hobbles about, cursing his fate and making futile attempts to haul the lifeboat out of the ditch, Whitbread is already imagining what a future search party will think when they discover their bodies.
Although they were ostensibly left behind because of their infirmities, the two men can't help feeling that they're also outcasts. While many of the sailors engaged in sodomy during the long months trapped in the ice, Hennesey and Whitbread developed a relationship that went beyond mere carnal gratification. Now they think they are being punished, by the other men and/or by God.
As Victorians, the two are torn between self-loathing and an awakening sense of the hypocrisy and absurdity of their society. They mock their captain and his moralizing shipboard sermons, and scoff at the useless relics of civilization – slippers, toiletries, chocolate – they've been dragging about in the lifeboat. They imagine with ghoulish glee how Queen Victoria will be given news that her valiant explorers resorted to cannibalism in the end.
Kavanagh fills much of the play with this sort of black humour, making Whitbread and Hennesey's terrible situation uncommonly entertaining. But he spends too much time whipping those old dead horses, Victorian morality and hubris, and too little on revealing to us who these men are.
The well-read Whitbread, though the more passive of the two, is also the more compelling because we get some sense of his closeted past. He has a touching scene where he makes a frail effort to strip down and plunge into the nearby frigid waters, in a desire to relive happy boyhood memories of swimming with his schoolmates. In contrast, we learn almost nothing about the working-class Hennesey until very late in the play – and then only that he owned a soup cart before he joined the Royal Navy.
Sometimes Y's production, directed by Ed Roy, is merely capable. Walker's weedy Whitbread is the better of the two performances; he captures some of the pathos of this sensitive but stoic scholar, who seems to have spent his short life being victimized one way or another. But Tsonos (also the company's artistic director) is never convincing as the ranting Hennesey. And it doesn't help that he's saddled with a final, redundant monologue that is a miscalculation on Kavanagh's part.
The design, however, is impressive. Steve Lucas's set fills the small stage of Theatre Passe Muraille's Backspace with a steep-sided ditch and a semi-abstract boat. They have a clean, sculpted look that suggests one of Lawren Harris's northern landscapes. Above one side is a screen where images of the Franklin expedition are projected, superimposed over a Union Jack. Lyon Smith's sound design establishes the play's ironic tone, the vainglorious strains of Rule, Britannia! giving way to the bleak whistling of Arctic winds.
Ditch was first produced at SummerWorks in 1993 and it's one of those plays about young men dying that seemed to allude to the AIDS crisis of the time. That added poignancy is lost today. Now it comes across simply as an unusual, if perfectly valid, take on the Franklin tragedy that doesn't fulfill its dramatic potential. You won't be left cold by the plight of its sad characters, but you won't really warm to them, either.
- Written by Geoff Kavanagh
- Directed by Ed Roy
- Starring Clinton Walker and Robert Tsonos
- A Sometimes Y Theatre production
- At Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto
Ditch runs until Nov. 20.