Adaptations: Artistic Fraud’s production of “The Colony of Unrequited Dreams”

Recently, I was lucky enough to see Artistic Fraud’s production of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, adapted by Robert Chafe, on the second night of its four-performance maiden voyage. One scene near the end sticks in my mind. The whole Smallwood clan has gathered around the radio to hear the results of the first 1948 referendum regarding Newfoundland’s political future – Charlie, the grousing blustery alcoholic father, Minnie May, the high-strung mother down to her last nerve, Clara, the quiet and conventional wife, and the man himself, Joseph R. alias Joey, leader of the Confederate forces, our protagonist.

The scene opens with a radio announcer reading the referendum results: it’s a win for a return to self-governance, with 45% of the vote, but Confederation with Canada polls higher than expected, at 41%. The continuation of ‘Commission of Government,’ the strange dictatorial colonial interregnum that has administered Newfoundland since 1934, finishes a distant third, with 14% of the vote. As no ballot option received more than 50% of the vote, this means a second, run-off referendum is in the works, between the two most popular options – and it will be this second referendum that seals Newfoundland’s fate and delivers it to Canada as a tenth province in 1949.

It’s a proud night of triumph for Joey. Confederation has performed better than expected, and Joey anticipates that the supporters of continued colonial rule will be unlikely to switch to pro-independence – he knows that he’s going to win the second referendum. But the scene soon devolves into shouting, curses, recriminations, as Joey’s father, Charlie Smallwood – a man who, earlier in the play, bitterly instructed Joey to “love a woman, not a country” because “a country can’t love you back” – now patriotically accuses his son of selling both his soul and his homeland for a bit of political gain and Canadian coin.

The ensuing fight is fierce, probably the most heated and angry scene in the play. I read it as a symbolic representation of the very real family-destroying arguments that ripped through Newfoundland in the later years of the 1940s, as the issue of independence versus confederation divided families and communities – a trauma that still echoes today, not so many years after.

The night I saw the play, at every thunderous peak of rage, many in the audience laughed, as if the bitter schism being played out for us was a Codco skit.

I’ve been thinking about why this was the case ever since I walked out of the Arts and Culture Centre that evening. At first I was annoyed at the audience, taking the members who laughed as boors. But the more I thought about it, the more I considered it a symptom of adaptation. Just as Johnston’s book is an adaptation of Smallwood’s life and Newfoundland’s history into a novel, making at-times radical alterations and inventions, this production is likewise an adaptation of Johnston’s novel into a play. Adaptation allows us to experience a familiar story in a radically different way – in a new form. Different forms have different strengths, allow different aspects of a narrative or text to be revealed or concealed. Adaptations often fail, but not for the reason many people think. A movie based on a book shouldn’t cleave too closely to that book – movies are rubbish in areas where books excel, and movies excel in areas where books struggle. If translation is a creative act, then adaptation is too, but even more so – it requires not only translation, but also mutation and invention.

The question then, is, whether the unexpected laughter from the audience revealed something new about the source material, or whether it was the result of something lost in the translation from stage to page.

* * *

I first saw an Artistic Fraud production in 2009 – Afterimage, also written by Robert Chafe, also a ‘page to stage’ adaptation – in this case, of a Michael Crummey short story. Even six years on, the memory of that performance endures like – like, well, an afterimage, lambent and spectral. The electrified set (this is not a metaphor; the set and the actors really were electrified – I’m talking sparks, arcs, livewires, ball lighting, electric flame), the haunting soundscape, the play’s near-perfect structure, the uniformly strong performances. Afterimage went on to win Robert Chafe the 2010 Governor General’s Award for Drama.

So, when people say (and I have heard them say) that Artistic Fraud is one of the most innovative and exciting theatre companies in Canada, I tend to nod my head in agreement.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams shares many strengths with Afterimage. The set design and staging were, again, kinetic, memorable, elemental – this time building not on electricity and fire, but on wind, snow, ice. This is one of the things that performance can do that literature struggles with – the language of sound, image, and motion can convey so much without using a single word. In this case, flurries constantly drifted through the air and swirled across the floor, regardless if the scene was set indoors or out, suggesting pre-Confederation Newfoundland as a place of constant blizzard and drift, a place unsettled. Desks, chairs, walls, and actors slid and curved into place like perfectly thrown curling stones – like the stage floor was made of smooth ice.

One particularly memorable scene – the best scene in the play, if you ask me – involves Smallwood in his role as the Barrelman, host of a populist radio program designed to “make Newfoundland better known to Newfoundlanders”, partly to counteract the malaise and despair of the newly instated Commission of Government. He’s stationed at the centre of the stage, at his desk with his radio microphone, slowly rotating in place, simultaneously addressing his audience and trading lines with Sheilagh Fielding, his Wayne Johnston–invented foil, author of the cynical, cryptic, satirical newspaper column Field Day. She sits at her typewriter as she spirals rapidly around him, swirling the snow as she launches barb after barb at Smallwood. Together, they form a binary star system, locked together, orbiting around each other, always facing, united in a complex way that goes beyond mundane words like “love” or “hate,” “rivals” or “partners.” Together, they comprise the twin soul of Newfoundland, its contradictory nature.

This is so true to the book, but staged in such a stunning and surprising manner, that it made me sit forward in my seat in both awe and excitement. This is adaptation at its best – doing something that could never, never be done in words on a page, but that shows the ideas and feelings conjured by those words in an entirely new and unexpected way. This is the kind of stage magic that has made Artistic Fraud’s reputation.

The program, fittingly, was a newspaper

The program, fittingly, was a newspaper

Fielding is the anti-Smallwood in every way – female vs male, large vs small, disabled vs able-bodied. Fielding is cynical to Smallwood’s painful earnestness, a struggling alcoholic where he is teetotal, an introvert prone to fits of total hermitage whereas Smallwood is an extrovert who forces his way into political society even when it’s clear that no one wants him around. She is an elitist, full of cunning, whereas Smallwood is a populist, lacking guile, a man constantly being taken advantage of by those craftier than himself. Even the means by which each character – journalists both – communicates his or her ideas to the Newfoundland populace is set at odds: Fielding operates via the written word, full of clever devices and references to ‘high’ art, spiraling furiously around Smallwood, constantly searching for chinks and weaknesses in his armour. Meanwhile, Smallwood holds the balance of gravity and power with his radio show: populist, easily digested, simple, optimistic, unchallenging. The radio show has made him a celebrity while Fielding is an outcast eccentric, little liked and even less understood, yet he is consistently flustered and put off-guard by her circling assault, her persistent needling.

* * *

Adaptation also allows ideas that were undercurrents in the original text to become more prominent and articulated in the work’s new form. Smallwood’s youthful work as a socialist organizer is continually brought to the fore in the stage version of Colony; as he attempts to build a political career he is accused of being a hypocrite multiple times by multiple people. We spend much of the novel inside Smallwood’s head; he’s not great on self-knowledge, but in the book there’s little question that, at least before becoming Premier, he’s usually earnest and forthright. In the play, though, we have no access to Smallwood’s inner world. Doubt begins to set in: is he a self-aggrandizing turncoat opportunist, abandoning his socialist ideals to work for the Liberal party, to gain himself influence and power? When accused of being just that, Smallwood usually has no convincing rejoinder. Towards the end of the play, though, he hits on one: Canada is (or at least, was) a social welfare state. The only way to establish social welfare in Newfoundland is to join Canada – the exploitative ‘fishocracy’ that ran the place before the Commission of Government would only take over again should Newfoundland return to independence, and fishocracy is basically a Newfoundland English word meaning corporate oligarchy or merchant rule. Smallwood really has been a socialist all along – he has just become a pragmatist to boot, and he now realizes that socialism’s only realistic chance for even limited success in Newfoundland comes via Canada. Confederation becomes a socialist realpolitik ploy. (This is an idea several of Newfoundland Twitterati have tossed about, by way of explaining why Stephen Harper’s slow neoliberal transformation of Canada so deeply bothers us – we sacrificed our country in 1949 to join a social democracy, and Harper dismantling the welfare state feels like he’s betraying the terms of that contract).

* * *

As I walked out of the Arts and Culture Centre, I found myself wishing that The Colony of Unrequited Dreams could be made into a mini-series. It would look very, very different from Artistic Fraud’s production. In the right hands, it’d make for excellent television. But perhaps I think that because, as a form. the mini-series is more novelistic than the play. I’m such a fan of the book that I found myself missing the gothic twists and turns (and there are many, many over the course of 608 pages) that could not be represented without sacrificing the necessarily new form of the adaptation — a play has to work as a play. I found myself making that elementary mistake of expecting an adaptation to perfectly follow the shapes and contours of the original – to cry “it was different from the book” without admitting “if you want to experience the book, you should read the book.”

But then there’s still the issue of the crowd having a laugh at the Smallwood family meltdown, the scene I described at the start of this review. Is it just the case that there was no time in the play to really develop Joey’s parents, Charlie and Minnie-May, and so their ranting and roaring seems out of place, not understood by the audience and thus read by some as comical? I know both the book and the actual history very well, and so I have a good sense of what the fighting is all about, who these characters are and what they represent – but maybe, stripped of that understanding, I might have found it funny, too? Or were the audience members laughing at how anyone could ever be so worked up about joining Canada  – were they so lacking in any sense of bitterness, any sense of a lost ‘what might have been’ that they legitimately found the strife humorous in hindsight? Was the scene perhaps meant to be funny? I don’t have an answer. That’s another useful thing adaptation can do – it can introduce uncertainty and provoke questioning by revealing unfamiliar aspects of a familiar text.

Introducing Wayne Johnston’s The Son of a Certain Woman
Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

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