The Shaw Festival had a creditable tradition of producing one-act plays during lunchtime. In about an hour you could see a work that you may have never seen and still have time for lunch and a matinee performance. We have been able to see works like Chekhov’s The Bear and The Proposal adapted as Love Among The Russians (2006), J.M. Barrie’s Half an Hour (2010), Trifles by Susan Glaspell and A Wife for a Life by Eugene O’Neill (2013) and Tennessee Williams’ A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur (2014).
This year’s offering is Flush, an adaptation by Tim Carroll of Virginia Woolf’s “biography” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel of that name. The book was written as an interlude from more serious writing and Woolf intended it to be a joke but her humour and elegant prose produced a wonderful novella that is partly fact and partly fiction. Critics have found many levels of social commentary and critiques but the lighter side suffices for us.
Flush was given to Elizabeth Barrett by Mary Russell Mitford in the 1840’s to provide the bed-ridden poet some companionship. The dog spent several years with Elizabeth, most of the time in her room but with some outings and adventures. He witnessed the poet Robert Browning’s courtship of Elizabeth with great trepidation. Flush does not understand English but he is very sensitive and intuitive and has a good idea of what is going on. He is jealous of Robert and in fact bites him but is forgiven. He accompanies the couple when they run off to Florence and finds happiness there amidst some difficulties of acculturation.
Carroll has four actors narrate the story and Alexandra Montagnese has created a marvelous a puppet theatre where we see Flush interacting with Elizabeth and Robert. Julie Lumsden represents Elizabeth Barrett, Jonathan Tan represents Robert Browning and Jacqueline Thair plays the Maid. Drew Plummer is the Puppeteer handling Flush as well as being one of the narrators.
The puppet theatre is a small version of the Royal George Theatre stage and we see Flush as a puppet while the poets and the maid are usually seen only partially, below the neck. The story is narrated and not acted out although there is some movement.
It is a wonderful story accompanied frequently by rousing classical music. Unfortunately, there were a few issues. The narrators tended to stand in one place as if they were nailed to the floorboards. This is acceptable when there is activity in the puppet theatre but at other times narration may be helped by some movement.
The Brownings and the maid no doubt spoke with an English accent. The actors tried to do an English accent without achieving great success. That is perhaps excusable but Carroll who also directed the production seems not to have paid sufficient attention to volume and enunciation. The story is illustrated by the actors appearing as the poets and the maid in the puppet theatre, but this is a narrated production. We expect the actors to enunciate plainly, be heard clearly and modulate their voices. All these qualities were present but done only adequately. They could have and should have done better.
Bitching aside, Flush is an inspired idea that brings to our attention a wonderful and multi-layered story on the stage and, no doubt, encourages a good read of the original.
Flush adapted by Tim Carroll from the novella by Virginia Woolf continues until October 2, 2021, at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.