‘The Divine’ is a gripping and believable story

Fiona Reid plays Sarah Bernhardt. DAVID COOPER PHOTO

Like a masterfully composed symphony, The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt, is a finely crafted work that soars beyond its seemingly divergent elements. Quebec-based playwright, Michel Marc Bouchard, is so intimately acquainted with the tools of his trade that he can flirt with melodrama and dance with the didactic in the course of unwinding a moving and engaging theatrical tale.

In this premier run of the play, commissioned by Shaw Festival veteran director Jackie Maxwell, the artful choreography of the work’s mix of styles and the minimalist symbolism of designers Michael Gianfrancesco and Bonnie Beecher reveals the nuance and cohesion of Bouchard’s writing. 

The story is based on a volatile stop Sarah Bernhardt and her troupe made in Quebec City in 1905, while on an international theatrical tour. However, The Divine is not about Sarah Bernhardt but for her. 

Born to a Jewish courtesan, the petite powerhouse charmed and strategized her way to worldwide fame, yet did not place her art in a secondary position. Neither did she abdicate her right to authority over her life choices.

Fiona Reid, as Bernhardt at the height of her career, deftly brings to light the depth and sophistication of the Divine Sarah as well as the actress’ delight in theatrical posturing and witty repartee. The scenes in which Bernhardt is featured offer a counterpoint to heavier sections of the play yet Reid’s Sarah is a woman in control of her actions, never a caricature.

The first act unfolds at a leisurely pace in a dormitory of the Grand Seminary of Quebec. Here, Michaud (Ben Sanders), a young, high born, priest-in-training, is peering at Bernhardt’s arrival at the train station through binoculars, on top of a tall ladder pressed against a window. In between effusive descriptions of the fanfare in the distance, the youth imagines watching Bernhardt perform on stage and even privately speaking with her about his writing.

The romantic-comic tone of the play shifts when the strict but kind and stiff Brother Casgrain (Martin Happer) enters. Casgrain cares about his charges but dutifully guards the rules and boundaries of the church authorities.

The story is fully launched when Talbot (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) arrives with his long-suffering yet feisty mother (Mary Haney) in tow. Talbot is the lifeboat his family is counting on to carry them from brutal poverty. Inexplicably, those in charge are handling the sullen and angry boy with kid gloves, though he is far from a poster child for the Catholic Church.

Soon after Talbot’s appearance, Casgrain commands the two student priests to deliver a decree from the Archbishop of Quebec to Sarah Bernhardt that bans the performance of her shows. One of the delicious ironies of Bouchard’s play is that the church authorities deem Bernhardt immoral and the plays her company performs corrupt. Never embodied on stage, their power from on high is evident. Only Casgrain, a follower and a victim of the church, physically represents it.

Outside the seminary, the young priests opt for divergent opportunities. Michaud hastens toward his dreams; Talbot temporarily jumps ship to escape his nightmares. Inevitably the youths’ paths keep crossing.

Bouchard’s multi-levelled play travels from the seminary to the theatre to a factory where women with few options and their young children labour under harsh and dangerous conditions. At each location we come face to face with the toll on individual lives caused by the hypocrisy and sins of these institutions. 

However, Bouchard does not allow us to rest in comforting delusions about being in tune with his critiques. Instead, he takes us to points from which we can see the value of these organizations, then laughs at our smugness by slyly showing how each of us contributes to the existence of child abuse, hunger and oppression in Canada and abroad.

Some of Bouchard’s characters (Talbot and Casgrain) are finely drawn, others (Talbot’s mother and the factory owner) created with broad strokes. Michaud and The Divine are portrayed in a romantic light. Yet, there is no moment when the talented cast dispels credibility.

Ultimately, The Divine speaks to our time. Our culture is faster paced, highly distracted and more than ever addicted to consumption. Can we say things have improved? What can be said is that The Divine does what fine theatre should: provides humour as well as heart-wrenching moments, a gripping and believable story with engaging characters, provocative questions and the possibility of hope. n

The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt runs at the Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre until Oct. 11.