Monkey business

Adapting Yann Martel's Beatrice & Virgil brings out the animal instinct

BEATRICE & VIRGIL by Yann Martel, adapted by Lindsay Cochrane, directed by Sarah Garton Stanley, with Damien Atkins and Pierre Brault. Presented by the Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst). Opens Thursday (April 17) and runs to May 11, Tuesday to Saturday 8 pm, matinees Sunday and May 3 and 10 at 2 pm. $30-$45, some Sunday pwyc. 416-504-9971.

How do you talk about the unthinkable in a way that encompasses its enormity?

The question underlies any discussion of the Holocaust, and novelist Yann Martel takes an unconventional stab at it in Beatrice & Virgil.

Factory Theatre, in collaboration with the National Arts Centre, brings Lindsay Cochrane’s adaptation of the book to the stage, giving two actors, Damien Atkins and Pierre Brault, a chance to play animal as well as human characters.

The former are the title figures, Beatrice (a donkey) and Virgil (a howler monkey), whose lives become an allegorical tale that echoes the Holocaust.

“The story suggests a way to look at survival and its cost,” says director Sarah Garton Stanley, associate artistic director of English theatre at the National Arts Centre. “It’s our desire as humans to codify our past experiences in a way that makes them safe, but we must continue to be aware of our own propensity toward evil.”

The narrative involving the animals is framed by the tale of Henry, a novelist whose latest book was rejected by his publishers, and a taxidermist who wants his help writing a play featuring Beatrice and Virgil.

“Henry’s story also deals with the Holocaust, and he feels a real desire and need to tell the story so his readers can learn and grow from that huge event,” says Stanley, who recently directed Helen Lawrence (coming to Canadian Stage next season) and a key collaborator with Michael Rubenfeld in SelfConscious Theatre.

“The taxidermist is a parallel figure at some level he’s trying to preserve animals who are being exterminated, so they won’t be forgotten.

“As their two tales unfold, the storytelling space they create is an uneasy one. The novelist feels that he’s a failure, and the taxidermist, who is more than he presents himself at the start, knows himself to be one.”

The animals’ names suggest Dante’s three-part medieval epic The Divine Comedy. Virgil is the classical poet who guides him through the first two, the Inferno and Purgatory, while Beatrice is the idealized woman who leads Dante through Paradise.

“Both the animals are guides, too,” says Stanley. “The story is meditative in some way, and the animals are a means for the taxidermist to look at moments of unimaginable horror, as the donkey and monkey present an earthly depiction of hell.”

And why use animals?

“Beatrice is stubborn and hard-working, and Virgil is clever and nimble,” says Stanley. “They’re beautiful creatures, devoid of irony, unlike the human characters. They’re pure, determined to find the best in the world and endure through the most difficult circumstances. The pair bring to mind all the qualities one would aspire to have in order to move gracefully through life.”

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The material of the tale has affected Stanley in a way she hopes will echo with audiences.

“Yann suggests that this story can help us understand the world today. I have so many questions about living in the here and now – where I should stand up, what impact do I have when I do, if I have the power to change or stop events that occur around me.”

The stage version of the book, says Stanley, is a narrative, structural and thematic mystery.

“I’m compelled by that and also aware that it’s not a meal that’s served in a traditional, straight manner. You might get your French fries after the dessert.”

Download associated audio clip.

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