A Word or Two

Written on August 3rd, 2012

Tall Tales from Big Books

The lights come up on Christopher Plummer perched on a stack of giant books, which are part huge pile of books twisting their way to the ceiling. He recites some verses about an old man sitting on a gate from a poem written by Lewis Carroll, and then goes on to talk about his favourite childhood books, like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and others.

Christopher Plummer’s one-man show, A Word or Two, is currently on stage at Stratford’s Avon Theatre. It’s his own work – he wrote it and is now performing it, directed by Des McAnuff. But what do we call it? Not really a play, nor is it a lecture (but it did remind me of sitting in English class with a favourite professor.) It’s a little like stand-up comedy, as Plummer just talks, moving from one topic to the next. At times he rambles a bit in his monologue – but I don’t think he strays from his script – the rambling is fully intended.

He tells us he was born on Friday the 13th – an omen? It was in December 1929, making him now 82 years old. Certainly he does not seem like an octogenarian – his voice is strong, his memory for his lines is excellent and he never falters or stumbles over a single word. He looks as good as he did in The Sound of Music – but never mentions the movie at all as he travels through his life.

His presentation is autobiographical – we learn a little bit about his life, through the books he was reading at the time. But I felt that any extra personal information was being closely guarded. He was absolutely charming, but formal at the same time, careful with the tidbits he revealed. He says “Words were my master, and I their humble slave…well, not so humble,” and he laughs.  Truer words were never spoken.

He walks us through his life by way of his reading material – he likes stories, plays, poetry, and his mix of authors is eclectic. He likes to laugh, citing A. A. Milne and Ogden Nash. He hated his teen years (“pimply pubescence”). He talks about lust and love, quoting Songs of Solomon from the Bible. Then, silly limericks will be scattered among classics. Some of his favourites are long dead authors; others are poets he met, such as Dylan Thomas.

He pulls lines from plays, with Shakespeare and Shaw being favourites. He talks about playing Hamlet in1957 during the very early days of the Stratford Festival. He acts some scenes – a convincing Herod, with sunglasses, a fan and a southern drawl. He also shows his Canadian roots, flipping easily from English to French, a truly bilingual product of Montreal. He sometimes stands at a lectern, and reads from the likes of Stephen Leacock, but he’s not actually reading. He has the lines committed to memory.

As he progresses, Plummer is no longer the child observing the old man on the gate he spoke of in the beginning – he becomes the old man, even talks of death. Literature has taken him full circle.

By the end of the hour and half, (there was no intermission, Plummer just pauses while he has a drink of water), we know the stories and authors he prefers. He is, by his own admission, hooked on words. But the impression I have is that Christopher Plummer is self-made, and while he may have enjoyed these books and he loves literature, they did not impact or influence his life. Unless he read advice about stage presence – but I think it comes naturally to him. And it is just his presence on that stage that has the most impact on an audience. While he talks about his study of books, we get to study Christopher Plummer – and he’s far more interesting than anything that could be put on paper.

A Word or Two continues in repertoire until August 26 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford. Tickets are available at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival at 1-800-567-1600, or check www.stratfordfestival.ca

A Word or Two
Written, arranged and performed by Christopher Plummer
Directed by Des McAnuff
Stratford Shakespeare Festival Production
Avon Theatre, Stratford
July 25 to August 26, 2012
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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