Saturday, 23 February 2013

Nightmare Dream at Campbell House

Campbell House is an 1822 Palladian Style Georgian residence that represents the height of colonial rule in Canada. Built one decade after the War of 1812 it represented England’s last successful attempt to maintain their Colonial interests in North America.

Nearly two centuries later, 25 patrons crowd into Campbell House`s grand entrance hall, reading their programs and making small talk. Tickets are taken and coats are hung. There are way too many backpacks. The director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu is taking time to meet the audience and share a few words as we await the opening. We are all wondering - "How will we know when Nightmare Dream has started?"

A thunderous crash answers that question. Simon Dube (Peter Bailey) begins descending the spiral Grand staircase, trailing a long train of sheer silk. Dube begins a bureaucratic outline of an African Studies course that degenerates into a hostile dialogue with a group of sophomore students. The spirit of humor of the production is immediately evident. Barking the reading list to the class, Dube rhymes off a long list of important tomes on African cultural and colonial history. All of which are written by writers with clearly European names. Not the wittiest conceit, but one that is necessary to establish the thesis of what will develop into a sprawling work about the post-colonial African Diaspora...

Dube struts down the stairs and disappears. We follow and find ourselves sharing a basement chamber with  Dube, a dancing shaman, and a corpse. The scene is without material dialogue, and consists largely of the shaman dancing around the pallet holding the corpse. The dance is spectacular. Physical. Visceral. Taut. But then anyone who has seen Pulga Muchochoma since he arrived in Canada in 2006 expects no less.

The shaman's dancing is effective, and the corpse begins to move under the shroud. However the dancing shaman has transformed into a spirit animal, and Dube is holding a machete. There is a quick flash of the blade, and the spirit animal has been despatched into another realm.

We are led into the Dining Hall, and are presented a rather predictable discourse with a plantation owner, played by Joshua Browne, with Dube as apparently a shipping magnate (of the cargo of slaves, of course) and the serving girl going through a rather tepid complaint about the horrors of slavery. Which is one paragraph long and which she repeats many, many times. It may just be that 18th and 19th century slave trade is so horrific that its simplest facts are all that`s needed.

We are grateful when Dube leads us to his audience with "Queen B", a thinly disguised Queen of England (Jane Miller). Here the story point is how a colonial nation negotiates its independence. Incredibly, author “Motion” and director Tindyebwa Otu stage the scene as an alluded fornication. So the taboo allure of interracial copulation provides the machinations by which Dube will negotiate the independence of his nation. Here are a random list of scene details which show the incredible artistry of the entire production.

  • The sheer silk train has now become a scroll, which represents the treaty under negotiation. (It has appeared in many of the other scenes – it's practically a character in itself)
  • At one point the Queen is climbing over Dube like a jungle gym and he is shouting that she must release him. But she isn't holding on to him at all. It is he, holding on to her. Demonstrating that his colonial status is as much mindset as Magna Carta
  • And this is the perfect scene to acknowledge sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne. The underscore here is the engine that drives the scene.

Now we move to another Great Room – and are finally in Africa! Dube is now the leader of the liberation government, and is making a speech to a heard but unseen stadium of now freed citizens. (more of Thomas Ryder Payne's soundscaping). In counterpoint is Neema Bickersteth, robed as a noble and singing a ballad unknown to me in her beautiful operatic voice. The Queen and the plantation owner/slaver are also present, demanding their take of the new nation's money.

This scene represents the creative team firing on all cylinders. The pressures on Dube of his new office, the expectations of a newly liberated nation, the ties to old regimes that must be re-booted represent complex contradiction that make for challenging storytelling. Here, Motion and Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu bring us all the contradiction with no platitudes. Very skillful handling that is full of human truth. Once again Pulga Muchochoma ties the scene together with his athletic and allegorical dance.

An entirely electrifying work of theater.

Conceived and directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu
Written by Motion
Featuring: Peter Bailey, Jane Miller, Pulga Muchochoma, Joshua Browne and Neema Bickersteth
Sound Design: Thomas Ryder Payne
Production Design: Snezana Pesic
Stage Manager: Jessica Derventzis
Assistant Stage Manager: Anna Plugina

Produced by IFT Theatre in Association with Newface Entertainment.

Disclosure- David Crawford, Newface entertainment producer, is a work colleague. He still makes me pay for my own tickets.

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