The Syringa Tree

Carman Grant plays more than 20 characters
Carman Grant plays more than 20 characters

Written by Pamela Gien
Directed by Miles Potter
Performed by Carmen Grant
Grand Theatre, London
March 17 to April 4, 2009
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Apartheid through a child’s eyes

As the action begins on stage, my first thought is “how can one actor possibly play 24 roles?” As The Syringa Tree opens, Carmen Grant is protraying a little girl sitting on a swing, making me think she must be 24 different little girls. But no, the characters are young and old, male and female, black and white, and Grant remarkably plays them all, and does it very, very well.

The Syringa Tree, currently on stage at London’s Grand Theatre is an excellent production of a moving story. Set in South Africa in the 1960s, the story is told by Elizabeth. She’s the young child of a presumably wealthy white doctor. Their black servant Salamina has a baby girl but the toddler doesn’t have government papers to be outside the black townships and has to be kept hidden. Carman Grant plays Elizabeth, her parents, the black servants the family employs, neighbours, grandparents, and friends.

Grant is a brilliant actor. She changes her accent and the timbre of her voice with every character. She has different mannerisms and ways of walking for each personality, and she alters her perspective accordingly. When little Elizabeth talks to her father, she reaches up to hold his hand, when the father replies, Grant portrays him reaching down to the child. She instantly becomes each character, changing herself completely, so the audience forgets she is just one woman.

Through the characters, we learn about the appalling conditions of apartheid. Innocent people, both black and white, die. The strife between the segregated races is enough to convince Elizabeth to move to California when she finishes university. The story ends when she returns to South Africa years later – unfortunately, it’s not clear that there is any improvement in the conflict, although there is a bittersweet reunion.

Grant, originally from Tisdale, Saskatchewan, has portrayed the characters of The Syringa Tree previously at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, the Belfrey Theatre in Victoria, and the Manitoba Theatre in Winnipeg, along with many other impressive credits.

She must have incredible strength and stamina to do this show eight times a week. Not only is it emotionally draining, it is also physically demanding. How she can talk in her stage voice continuously, changing the range from high to low, for a full hour and a half, without pausing for a drink is remarkable. There is no intermission.

It is worth the ticket price just to see Grant perform this feat. But it is also a valuable experience to feel the effects of the government-imposed racial prejudice. This evocative story brings the damage caused by apartheid to a personal level – we see the horrific effect on children, friends and family.

The Syringa Tree continues at the Grand Theatre in London until April 4. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593.

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