Candid love letters explore the distance in correspondence in Cher Menteur/Dear Liar at Toronto’s Berkeley Theatre
In Cher Menteur/Dear Liar, the Théâtre français explores the–often very convoluted–romance between the famous George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, a leading actress at the turn of the 20th Century. Their relationship was turbulent, swinging from infatuation to revulsion and back again. Historians believe that, while it may have been the greatest romance in both of their lives, the ties between them remained unconsummated. Both married other people, and although the two exchanged ideas and took inspiration from one another, in smaller or greater ways, throughout their lives, their only notable joint project was Shaw’s Pygmalion.
Cher Menteur/Dear Liar (presented in French, with English surtitles) explores this relationship through their correspondence, itself a point of considerable tension between the pair. Fortunately, both Shaw and Campbell were witty fiends, and the playfulness inherent in these letters–even when things are on the rocks–shines through, more than a century later.
One of the most striking aspects of this production is the remarkably simple, yet very effective, set design. Designer Jean-Bernard Hébert splits the stage into two zones: Mrs. Pat’s dressing room on the right, all done up in oriental screens and rugs; Shaw’s study, austere and simple, to the left; and in between the two, inhabiting both worlds, the hatbox where the letters were stored until the day she died. This arrangement allows for some surprisingly sly-and-smooth blocking and directorial tricks: the two “visit” one another’s realms, meet in the middle–and on occasion, cannot stand to be in the same room together.
The trouble, however, is that–despite this clever set–I thought this show improved considerably when I closed my eyes and treated it as a radio play.
Albert Millaire (who also directs) and Louise Marleau are talented, evocative performers who I felt were let down by this show’s structure. Throughout the performance, the pair clutch sheaves of letters from which they take it in turns to read. I found that this created considerable emotional distance between the performers, who scarcely get to look each other in the eye, even while speaking directly to one another. In both cases, the best moments of physical performance come not from their own line-readings, but from their reactions to the words of their partner–Marleau in particular has fantastic physical responses–and I found that this has the effect of splitting the focus and muddying the waters.
I understand the artistic impulses which underlie these choices: they emphasize the “coldness” of correspondence. Correspondence isn’t a dialogue: you don’t get to interrupt, or jump in, or kiss away the end of a sentence. You wait your turn, and you wait even longer for a response. These characters inhabited a different world, and the distance that this production creates between them is appropriate to that time and place.
And yet if, as artistic director Guy Mignault implies during his pre-show speech, the letter was the direct precursor to the text message and the tweet, this coldness and distance felt out-of-place. Bloodless. Hollow. From my seat, this show amounted to exactly what it looked like: two extremely talented actors reading other people’s correspondence, as if they’d uncovered a box of letters in the attic and decided to amuse themselves with a recital.
But–again–this is only the physical half of the production, and I mean it when I said these actors are talented. If you can handle the French, close your eyes and listen. Pretend it’s a radio play. Listen to the emotion, the evocation, the heat and the fire in these voices; the rage, the desire, the calamity and the forgiveness which doesn’t necessarily come across on stage. There’s something truly, truly special here if you move beyond the immediate, physical realm.
- Cher Menteur / Dear Liar plays through Saturday the 1st of March, 2014.
- All performances at the Berkeley Theatre Upstairs. (24 Berkeley Street, near King & Parliament)
- Performed in French with English surtitles at selected performances. (All Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings, and the 1:00 PM matinee on Sunday the 1st.)
- Ticket prices vary; see website for details. Some performances PWYC.
- Tickets may be purchased online, by phone (416.534.6604), or in-person at the TfT box office immediately before performances.
Photograph of Louise Marleau by Avital Zimmer