A Comedic Trip into History with a Sobering Conclusion
Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt brings the play 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt home to the theatre where it was born. Yet this is the first time it’s actually been performed on this stage for an audience. What a special homecoming.
1837: The Farmers’ Revolt was developed in Blyth 45 years ago. Rick Salutin and a collective of actors from Theatre Passe Muraille descended on Huron County in 1973 to continue the good work they had done in 1972 with The Farm Show. They used the Blyth Community Hall (now the theatre) while they were acting out the story of the farmers’ revolt, which was later written down. The Community Hall was in such a state of disrepair, that the actors were asked to sign waivers saying they wouldn’t sue if the roof caved in on them. When the troupe finally had 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt put together it was shown in other venues throughout the area and then across the province. Last year, it was part of the Shaw Festival’s repertoire. So it is only fitting that it finally comes home to Blyth again.
The show opens with various vignettes of settlers in Upper Canada (later called Ontario). There is a family hard at work clearing land for farming, when a pompous British magistrate from Richmond Hill arrives to kick them off their farm, calling them squatters when they believe they had the right to farm the land. In another scene, a settler-farmer waits for his new mail-order bride to arrive. Another fascinating story revolves around a settler going across the border to Detroit to find out what Americans are doing right. He is astounded to learn that they have free schools any child can attend, while schools in Upper Canada are only for the rich. He learns that in the USA, anyone can be a Lutheran, Methodist or Quaker, while in Upper Canada, all must adhere to the Church of England.
As well as battling the thick forests, unforgiving land, and harsh weather, the farmers are taking a beating from the British aristocracy that is governing Upper Canada. All the seats of power are filled by a clique of friends and family. It is nepotism run rampant. Known as “The Family Compact”, those in charge demand taxes and provide little for the settlers, instead returning to England making no personal investment in the new colony. Organized by newspaper editor William Lyon Mackenzie, the rebels decide to fight the rulers, resulting in the 1837 revolt. And while they didn’t win the battle at hand, they laid the groundwork for responsible government which eventually followed.
Garratt’s take on this play is very different from the Shaw’s production. In act one, he actually finds comedy: that’s a change for most of us who believe that Canadian history is either boring or serious. The Magistrate rides in on a bicycle with tinsel streamers on it. William Lyon Mackenzie wears a fluffy red wig and is a magician with a deck of cards. He uses a playing card to introduce each member of the corrupt governing clique.
The show is well cast with the same talented group who are in Blyth’s hit show The New Canadian Curling Club. Like the Shaw production, the casting is both colour blind and gender blind, with all actors taking on many various characters. They handle the changes perfectly. Southwestern Ontario theatre goers will recognize characters such as Colonel Van Egmond and Tiger Dunlop.
The set is an eclectic mix of draping made from old lace and chunks of various fabrics. Behind the fabric is a wall depicting the scene on a maple syrup can. A camera is occasionally carried by cast members focussing in on particular characters or props which are projected onto the fabric drapes or walls. Unfortunately, with the busy backgrounds, the projections are not easy to decipher.
The silly scenes dwindle as the show progresses. Act two evolves into the seriousness of the rebellion. The rebels march towards Montgomery’s Tavern at the corner of Yonge and Eglinton in Toronto ready to do battle, while other skirmishes are fought across Upper Canada. In the final scene, two of the rebels face the noose for treason. As they are being hanged, the audience is struck by a sharp, cruel dose of reality in this nasty piece of our history. One of the men to be executed says to the other, “We lost.” The other responds, “No, we just haven’t won yet.” Projected on the screen are the tangible rebel losses: “32 executed, 144 exiled, 248 convicted of lesser crimes.” A very sobering conclusion.
An aside: It’s interesting that the village of Blyth itself suffered from being founded by a British land speculator Henry Blyth. He owned all the land in the area and never set foot on it, still reaping the benefits of its economy. This information came to our attention courtesy of Blyth’s Cowbell Brewing Company which named one of its tasty beers Absent Landlord. How appropriate that they are supporters of this play!
1837: The Farmers’ Revolt continues in repertory at the Blyth Festival until September 15. Call 519-523-9300 / 1-877-862-5984 or go to www.blythfestival.com for tickets.
Photo: Matthew Gin, Parmida Vand, Marcia Johnson, Omar Alex Khan and Lorne Kennedy in 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt. Photo by Terry Manzo.
1837: The Farmers’ Revolt
By Rick Salutin & Theatre Passe Muraille
Directed by Gil Garratt
Performed by Matthew Gin, Marcia Johnson, Lorne Kennedy, Omar Alex Khan, Parmida Vand.
The Blyth Festival, Blyth
August 3 to September 15, 2018