1837: The Farmers’ Revolt

Ontario’s Not-so-Proud History Brought to Light    

Here in the province of Ontario – formerly known as Upper Canada – we are pretty proud of our past.  We are blessed with the beautiful Great Lakes and green, lush, countryside, a healthy mix of agriculture and industry, and for the most part, good government.

But it wasn’t always so.  Our province’s history is brought to light in a play, currently on stage at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Court House Theatre, 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt.

I remember learning this in elementary school.  And here’s what I recall from that class:  There was a rebellion against the Family Compact.  I passed the course with flying colours, but unfortunately had no idea what a Family Compact was!  I thought it was something small – you know, a powder compact is small, a compact car is small.

In this fascinating play we learn exactly what a Family Compact is: we see it fully demonstrated, and it is huge!

The Family Compact was nepotism run rampant.  In colonial Upper Canada, everyone appointed to every position of power was related, either by blood or in-laws.  All the good employment  – political, bureaucratic, economic, judicial – was held by this clique.  The nepotism itself was bad enough, but making it worse was the fact that most of these men in authority were also corrupt.  They had businesses turning profits, thanks only to their powerful positions.

In 1837, newspaper editor William Lyon Mackenzie organized farmers and other reformers and led the revolt against the Family Compact.  While unsuccessful, it eventually led to greater democracy in Ontario.

This play is a series of vignettes and short narratives leading up to the rebellion.  It is neatly bundled together, making history come alive.  The production is both gender blind and colour blind – everyone plays all roles, male or female.  It works seamlessly: each actor is completely convincing.  Credit goes to Director Philip Akin, who directed last year’s outstanding production of “Master Harold” … And The Boys. Under Akin’s direction, we are immersed in the various narratives and characters, forgetting everything else.

Ric Reid is outstanding as William Lyon Mackenzie.  His explanation of the Family Compact and the corruption keeps the audience on track through the series of anecdotes.

Travis Seetoo plays nearly all the members of the Family Compact, racing around the stage, and then popping up with a different facial expression for each different privileged character he covers.  We are introduced to more than 30 members of the corrupt Family Compact!  The rest of the cast is stellar, bringing so many different characters to life. From a farmer arriving and sending back for his mail-order wife, through to a settler deciding to go to Detroit to see if life is better in Michigan, the audience meets characters from all walks of life in early Upper Canada.   We travel around Southwestern Ontario, too.  There are stops in Chatham, then up to Goderich to meet with Tiger Dunlop, and continuing in Huron County to recruit Colonel VanEgmond.  There is even a trip to Niagara-on-the-Lake, which tickles the audience.  But the rebellion centres around Toronto’s Montgomery Tavern on Yonge Street.

First put together in 1973 by a collective at Theatre Passe Muraille, this play turns a few dull pages in a history book into an exciting and emotional story.  This talented cast makes each vignette personal and heartfelt, as we live through the frustration with them.

The story ends with two rebels facing the noose for treason.  One points out to the other that they lost.  The other responds, “No, we just haven’t won yet.”

1837: The Farmers’ Revolt continues in repertoire at The Courthouse Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 8.  For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com or call 1-800-511-SHAW(7429).

Photo: Ric Reid as William Lyon Mackenzie (right) and the cast of 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt. Photo by Emily Cooper.

1837:  The Farmers’ Revolt
By Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille
Directed by Philip Akin
Music Direction by John-Luke Addison
Performed by Donna Belleville, Sharry Flett, Jonah McIntosh, Marla McLean, Ric Reid, Cherissa Richards, Travis Seetoo, and Jeremiah Sparks
Produced by The Shaw Festival
Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 7 to October 8, 2017
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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