Patent Infringement or GMO Fight?
As usual, the Blyth Festival continues to offer unusual and exciting Canadian fare. Their 2015 season has opened with a fascinating piece of documentary theatre.
The play, Seeds, we are told, is a documentary: the playwright recorded all conversations during her research and used the information verbatim in her play. The court room scenes are from the actual transcripts. The actors in this production are presenting the facts as the playwright recorded them. The piece is supposed to be completely impartial.
Seeds is the story of the battle between Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser and Monsanto. Monsanto sued Schmeiser for patent infringement claiming that he was growing Round-up resistant genetically modified canola, for which they own the patent, without paying for the rights to grow it. Schmeiser fought back, maintaining that the seeds with either blew onto his fields, or were spilled there, and he never planted them.
This story raises many interesting questions. Can someone or a corporation “own” life and therefore have a patent on a gene? Is it patent infringement to plant a seed from your own crop? How widespread are genetically modified organisms? As the play progresses, more questions come up. Are genetically modified organisms ethical? Will they cross- breed and take over all future seeds? How much are we controlled by big multinational corporations? Are our government researchers to be trusted?
So it is certainly a piece of theatre that forces the audience to think. The Blyth Festival even circulates copies of a survey to enable them to get an understanding of the audience’s reactions.
David Fox plays Percy Schmeiser perfectly. He has all the mannerisms and speech patterns of an aging farmer, and demonstrates the stubbornness that Schmeiser must have. Yet we also see grandfatherly warmth. Severn Thompson is the playwright, acting as narrator in this unusual story. She tries to balance her need for more and more research with her growing young family. The rest of the cast each play multiple roles in this documentary.
Despite the obvious great effort that was made to keep this play factual and balanced, some problems exist in the playwright’s research, leaving questions unexplained: How did she not interview Carlisle, the hired hand, on her trips to Saskatchewan? Why were the University of Manitoba weed specialists made to look to potheads? How realistic was that, or did the audience just need comic relief?
There were also some problems with the play. The evening ran too long, from 8:00 to 11:00 p.m. Maybe this was an opening night problem: the show was a little late starting and intermission ran long. But even so, it seemed to slow in parts that could be tightened. The playwright needs to cut or shorten some scenes, particularly those that seemed repetitive. As well, too much time was wasted moving around tables. If the tables are left in place, the audience will still figure out what they are supposed to be. We have already been asked to suspend belief and accept men playing women and women playing men, so the audience can certainly get over some tables in the way.
However, I want to stress that despite my concerns about this show, it is still well worth attending. It’s a true David and Goliath story, one that affects all Canadians, not just farmers. It’s about both our rights to own life and the food we eat.
Seeds continues at the Blyth Festival in repertoire until August 8. Call 519-523-9300 / 1-877-862-5984 or go to www.blythfestival.com for tickets.
Photo: David Fox as Percy Schmeiser and Severn Thompson as the Playwright in Seeds. Photo by Terry Manzo.
By Annabel Soutar
Directed by Kim Collier
Performed by Keith Barker, Rachel Cairns, Jason Chesworth, Jeff Irving, David Fox, Tracey Ferencz, Severn Thompson.
Blyth Festival, Blyth
June 24 to August 8, 2015
Reviewed by Mary Alderson