Skip to main content

John Mann, left, and Tom Jackson in a scene from Beyond Eden at the Vancouver PlayhouseDavid Cooper

When archeologist and anthropologist Wilson Duff took his own life in 1976, some saw it as the final blow in a spiritual struggle he had been waging for nearly two decades.

The crisis of conscience began when Duff and his friend, artist and broadcaster Bill Reid, led an expedition to Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the British Columbia coast also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, in 1957. The survival of Haida culture was in doubt, and they were tasked with removing the last beautiful but decaying totem poles from the village of Ninstints and whisking them away so that they could be preserved.

But Duff, in particular, wrestled with the controversial call to remove them - and whether it would be more respectful to let them disintegrate, returning naturally to Haida land.

When Duff and Reid's team tried to remove the poles, their chainsaws wouldn't work. About half of the team felt sure they were being haunted by spirits; the more pragmatic among them pointed out that it was very damp on the island. Turning instead to hand saws, the team did eventually remove the poles but Reid and Duff were changed irrevocably by the project. Shortly after the expedition, Duff embarked on a spirit quest that intensified his passion for Haida culture.

By 1984, his expedition had come to the attention of Reid's friend Bruce Ruddell. A versatile Canadian composer who has collaborated with everyone from Tennessee Williams to Bruce Cockburn, he first wrote a 15-minute oratorio about it. Over the next 20 years, he went on to expand it to a full-scale rock musical with the help of a number of artists, including Canadian directors Robin Phillips and Glynis Leyshon. Even Broadway producer Hal Prince, who shared a mutual friend with Ruddell, left his finger prints on an earlier incarnation of Beyond Eden.

Since then, a number of stumbling blocks - including a change in artistic director at Vancouver's Playhouse Theatre and a price tag that ballooned to more than $1-million - have kept the musical from the stage. But last week Ruddell's creation finally premiered at the Playhouse as part of the Cultural Olympiad, and will move on to Theatre Calgary in February.

The word director Dennis Garnhum uses most often to describe the show is "spectacle," and he likens the actors moving through the set -- a complicated double-ramped abstraction that transforms the stage from a ship into the lush, natural site of the totems -- as akin to navigating a "jungle gym."

While only a loose historical account of the expedition, however, Beyond Eden gives full voice to the moral minefield around moving the totem poles.

The story revolves around the spiritual struggles of Lewis Wilson (modelled on Duff) and Max Thomson (based on Reid). Garnhum describes Lewis, played by Spirit of the West singer John Mann, as "this energized, driven, very ecstatic and erratic guy," who encounters many spirits along the way -- including the Watchman, an important mythological figure thought to give protection from evil spirits, played by former North of 60 star Tom Jackson.

If this all seems like an odd backdrop for a rock musical, those involved insist the juxtaposition works. Jackson, 61, says it's "a rock musical in a minor key" with "a serious edge to it." The score is laden with strong sentiment, and overlaid with traditional Haida songs (Chilliwack band member Bill Henderson pitched in as music director).

As for the central dilemma around removing the surviving relics, Jackson, who was born in Saskatchewan to a Cree mother and English father, says "the poles are, in fact, a microcosm of what took place historically on Haida Gwaii," a community that once numbered 40,000, but eventually dwindled to a mere 500 people. The impulse to meddle in an effort to preserve Haida culture clashed with the imperative to leave it be.

Jackson says just staging this play will draw important attention to the Haida, and indeed all of Canada's indigenous cultures (much as Bill Reid's art has).

"Before we can actually heal, we must know what's wrong. I don't mean we're going to hit the white man over the head again -- it's not about that at all. But it is about us acknowledging that we are human beings," Jackson says.

Still, even a few weeks before the first performances of Beyond Eden, it remained a work in progress. When he first read the script, Jackson said he worried it had loose ends, but he was told the cast would contribute to shaping the piece.

"It really came to life in the rehearsal hall," he says. "Everybody in the company who holds those creative reins gave it some life by letting it go a little."

Throughout the long haul to fruition, the musical has retained the ghostly qualities that haunted Duff and Reid's original voyage, so much so that Garnhum, who visited Haida Gwaii last year, readily entertains the notion that there are "spirits at play here."

Much the way Duff's and Reid's lives were shaped by their journey to Haida Gwaii, Garnhum thinks the play's long and arduous path has given it life at the perfect moment, with the Olympic spotlight to help it have maximum impact.

"I always think things happen for a reason," he says.

Beyond Eden runs until Feb. 6 at the Playhouse Theatre in Vancouver, and from Feb. 16 to March 7 at Alberta's Theatre Calgary.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct