If you love the Shaw Festival and its championing of the groundbreaking plays of ideas and social dramas of Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, you'll love The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt.
Michel Marc Bouchard, one of the country's finest playwrights, was specially commissioned to write a play in that style for the Shaw company and its audiences – and he's come up with a wonderful wrestling match between art, religion and business set in 1910 Quebec City, but full of relevance to 2015 Canada.
On the other hand, if you hate the Shaw Festival and its devotion to smug, preachy plays, written in styles past their best-before date, you might love The Divine even more.
"Social drama is a new trend that for the time being only attracts the converted, who, nestled in their velvet seats, delight in seeing onstage the injustices they encounter on every street corner," the grand, extravagant French actress Sarah Bernhardt – played cannily by Fiona Reid – says, before getting in a few good jabs at Anton Chekhov, Shaw himself and the oxymoronic artistic ideology of theatrical realism.
In short, in The Divine, Bouchard both celebrates and criticizes the type of theatre the Shaw Festival produces – and the type of audiences who flock to see it – even as he provides a moving and entertaining yarn drawn from our own history. Stylistically, he's written a play that is constantly pulling the rug out from underneath itself – and yet somehow keeps landing on its feet with only a few wobbles, quickly righted.
The Divine is inspired by the three-night stand that French actress Sarah Bernhardt spent in what was then conservative, Catholic church-controlled
Michaud (Ben Sanders), a well-connected priest-in-training, breathlessly describes Bernhardt's arrival at the train station from atop a ladder, peering out of a window at the Grand Seminary of Quebec. Much to his dismay, Michaud is not allowed to go see Bernhardt perform – instead, in a mixed blessing, he is assigned the task of delivering a letter from the Archbishop to the actress forbidding her to perform.
Going along with him is a poor young seminarian named Talbot (Wade Bogert-O'Brien) who has just arrived at the Grand Seminary. He beat up a priest and stole silverware, but mysteriously has been forgiven by the powers that be.
Brother Casgrain (Martin Happer), who functions as both the good cop and bad cop at the Seminary, makes Talbot an offer: Go along with the official story about what happened, and get a parish on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River after graduation. This reward would be for Talbot's family, as well – his mother (Mary Haney) and younger brother (Kyle Orzech) toil in brutal, unsafe conditions at the local shoe factory to pay his seminary fees.
It's only in the third scene that we actually meet Sarah Bernhardt, reading over a script that has been sent to her by a Paris producer – where the character she is being offered enters only in the third scene. "The audience came for me, they came to see ME – and here I am entering like a notary in the middle of the play," she complains to her entourage.
The Divine is filled with similar metatheatrical moments that are very funny, but are also the way in which Bouchard deconstructs his play as it unfolds and Michaud and Talbot are transformed by their encounter with the visiting actress.
Bouchard plays with his play most impressively in its most Shavian scene, set in the shoe factory, where the Boss (Ric Reid), Brother Casgrain and Sarah Bernhardt all face off. Each representative of art, business and church get a chance to make their points, even as the hypocrisy of their positions is revealed.
But, at the same time, through clever structuring, Bouchard draws attention to the hypocrisy of an audience paying sharp attention to a theatrical debate over the fictionalized abuse of children in Canada's past by church or business, while largely uncurious about who in foreign countries is making the shoes they are wearing – or the smartphones they turned off before the show began – today.
Director Jackie Maxwell's production deftly balances the ranges of styles that are required to pull off Bouchard's tight-wire act. She elicits pointed caricature from the likes of Ric Reid as the Boss and Orzech as an underage worker, while Fiona Reid and Sanders are allowed to indulge in romantic, comic performances.
Meanwhile, connecting Bouchard's play to the heart are the moving, minimal performances of Bogert-O'Brien as Talbot and Happer as Brother Casgrain. Their internal struggles are projected with a deeply felt humanity.
Happer, in particular, wrings with a speech about submission that, in its way, paraphrases Ecclesiastes and the religious argument against theatre: Much dreaming and many words are meaningless – therefore stand in awe of God.
In the end, however, The Divine is a rebuttal to its own criticisms about theatre – and as solid a justification of the Shaw Festival's own existence as anything Maxwell has presented in her time as artistic director.