By BRUCE DENNILL
…Or Not To Be – How Shakespeare Could Change Your Death / Directed by Christian Coulson / Auto & General Theatre On The Square
Canadian actor and playwright Simon Fortin has spent a lifetime in the theatre, a third-generation actor whose mother ran a children’s theatre company. It’s unsurprising, then, that he sees most of life’s biggest issues through a filter of plays he has performed in or been influenced by, or through other kinds of art that share similar themes. And what theme is more universal than death?
This is an unusual, novel piece split into short chapter announced by titles projected on a large screen at the back of the stage, where illustrations, paintings and short video excerpts also support Fortin’s monologue. As suggested by the play’s title, many of these musings on mortality focus on incidents in the plays of William Shakespeare, where death is not only a plot point but a means of giving a greater story more meaning or of helping the audience to understand the value of a character whose true colours are only revealed when there is nothing more at stake.
Fortin, as well as being an actor, is an academic – a psychologist – and is unapologetic about the tone of his delivery which, though always warm and infused with dry humour, is comfortably intellectual. This makes each of his insights or opinions – into paintings by Rothko and operas by Verdi as much as they are into Shakespeare’s plays – an opportunity to learn or develop a new perspective, rather than to just be amused (or bemused) by the actor’s performance.
There are many excellent facets to that performance, however. As might be expected from a scholar with a doctorate in Renaissance Studies and a profound love for Shakespeare, his monologues from the Bard’s plays are dense with emotion and meaning, while his delight in the melodrama required from him in an Agatha Christie play early in his career is infectious. His dramatic training is also obvious and pleasing, with clear elocution and rich timbre when he sings a snippet from a song.
What may stay longest with audiences, though, is the catchphrase, “…and then he died,” used each time Fortin completes a dramatic re-enactment of the demise of a well-known literary character. It has the effect of adding levity to scenes that are otherwise sometimes as melancholy as they are powerful.
The thread that runs through all of the different segments of the play, and the message it seems Fortin most wants his audience to take away from the piece, is that art plays – and has always played – a crucial role in helping humans process even the most brutally terminal of life’s challenges. Whether you agree with his particular views on how the psychology of that process works is not terribly important. You can feel much of his material resonating, and if you are encouraged to look for inspiration in music, poetry, literature, paintings and theatre when considering your own weighty issues, then Fortin’s work here is done.