It’s a professional hazard of being a theatre critic that you see a lot of theatre – perhaps too much theatre.
That may account for why as soon as I saw the opening image of Orphans by British playwright Dennis Kelly at the Coal Mine Theatre, I felt like I could see all the way to the end of the play.
This 2009 drama begins with a beefy white guy in a buzz cut and hoodie, covered in blood, standing in front of what looks like a middle-class couple having a dinner of fish, rice and white wine in their living room.
Liam (Tim Dowler-Coltman) is the blood-soaked man – and he’s not an intruder, but has let himself in with a key. The couple, also white, are his sister, Helen (Diana Bentley), and her husband, Danny (David Patrick Flemming) – and he tells them that the blood is from a lad he found lying in the streets and tried to help.
Liam says the injured young man eventually ran away from him in a state of confusion – and, when he goes to wash up, Danny’s instinct is to call the police. Helen, however, implores him not to do that: She and her brother grew up in a series of foster homes, he has a record and the cops will get the wrong idea.
Or perhaps the right one. It’s pretty clear that Liam’s story doesn’t exactly add up – and as Orphans unfolds, the truth of what exactly occurred between him and a young “Arab” lad slowly trickles out. The dramatic question is: How long will Helen defend her brother – and how complicit will Danny allow himself to get in order to keep his family together?
For me, however, the question was more: How far will this playwright take this one? How much brutality will Kelly make his audience sit through tonight?
You can feel a long British tradition of playwriting, from Harold Pinter’s comedies of menace to the in-yer-face movement of the 1990s and onward in Orphans – and I must admit to finding the form a bit exhausted.
Director Leora Morris’s production is certainly an effective piece of realism, claustrophobically staged on a set covered in the drawings of Helen and Danny’s absent five-year-old son, in the tight confines of the Coal Mine space on the Danforth. It’s anchored by an impressive performance by Dowler-Coltman, a recent graduate of the National Theatre School, as Liam; it’s not always easy to find Canadian actors who can convincingly play these lower-class parts.
I couldn’t stop seeing through Kelly’s play and its characters, however – to the points the playwright seemed to be wanting to make about fear of violence in the streets, the rise of Islamophobia, especially among the underemployed looking for a scapegoat, and the possibility that liberal society might very easily slide into fascism.
It all seems very “topical” and “relevant” in the age of Brexit and Trump. Given that it was written eight years ago, you might even call it “prescient” as well.
However, the adjective that actually kept coming to mind was simply “ugly.” Kelly fills his play with awful images and language and resists the impulse to aestheticize it too much or make it poetic. His characters speak in repetitive, unfinished sentences, often over each other, and the jokes are kept to a minimum. I suppose this means Kelly’s a more moral writer than, say, Tracy Letts or Martin McDonagh or Jez Butterworth or other male playwrights who have written in a similar vein but also want to entertain.
Perhaps Orphans is a necessary antidote to the previous play on at the Coal Mine, Letts’s Superior Donuts, which also featured a man who was derided for being a coward, as Danny is. That comedy actually celebrated the moment where its protagonist turned violent. Spoiler alert: This drama does not.
But I’ve been thinking a lot about form versus content in theatre lately – and what it means when the two don’t match up. I have no doubt that Kelly is opposed to violence in real life – but he’s written a play overflowing with it. I’m sure he doesn’t share the racism of his characters – but he’s written a play for three white actors. And I’m sure he doesn’t believe in the toxic masculinity he’s dramatizing – but he’s nevertheless asking an audience to “man up” in a way and endure some tough, sweary, savage writing.
There’s something regressive or reactionary in Kelly’s plotting too – batting a pregnancy around like a volleyball, reinforcing stereotypes about foster children, perpetuating the Lady Macbeth trope through Helen.
We’ve had an opportunity to see this playwright’s work on stages big and small in the past couple of years in Toronto – he wrote the book for the musical adaptation of Matilda at Mirvish Productions; and also the fake verbatim play Taking Care of Baby, which got an intriguing production at the Storefront Theatre.
I admired both of those, but Orphans, though it gets a solid production here, seemed only ugly to me.
Orphans continues to April 30 (coalminetheatre.com).Report Typo/Error