THE OXFORD ROOF CLIMBER'S REBELLION by Stephen Massicotte, directed by Richard Rose, with Jonathan Crombie, Victor Ertmanis, Michelle Giroux, Paul Rainville and Tom Rooney. Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman). Previews through Sunday (November 12), opens November 14 and runs to December 17, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, mats Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm (no mat November 11). $32-$38, Sunday pwyc-$17, previews $19. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
Do you picture Lawrence of Arabia as the blazingly blue-eyed Peter O'Toole from the epic David Lean film?
Playwright Stephen Massicotte offers a different but no less vibrant portrait of the man in The Oxford Roof Climber's Rebellion, an intriguing play that brings together T. E. Lawrence and poet Robert Graves a few years after the Great War.
"Stephen gives a fictional account of their meeting, but the two actually did meet and become confidants at Oxford," says Tom Rooney, who plays Lawrence, the man who helped shape the Arab world of today.
Lawrence, a James Bond-like double agent, had a brilliant military mind. A romantic figure to many, he may have been the 20th century's first celebrity.
"During the war, Lawrence convinced the Arab nation composed of hundreds of tribes to fight together against the Ottoman Empire and help the British war effort. In return, he promised them dominion over Syria and Mesopotamia. Only later did he realize the British wouldn't cede control of the area.
"Feeling remorse over having let down the people he had come to love, Lawrence went to the Paris peace talks to fight for an Arab nation but was ignored by the Western powers."
Returning to Oxford disillusioned and cynical, he met Graves, who was seriously injured in the war. In Massicotte's play, the disheartened pair stage a revolt against the British system, a revolution that literally takes them to the roofs of Oxford.
"I think the period was the first time people felt a generation gap," notes Rooney, a fine actor who most recently won applause in Gina Wilkinson's SummerWorks show Whistle Me Home.
"The younger generation was simply not going to go along with the elders who'd made the wartime decisions. Disappointed, angry and lost, they battled the establishment with anger-fuelled pranks."
Lawrence and Graves also shared a similar need to connect with other men in a way that was only partly homoerotic.
"In the play, Lawrence is drawn to the younger and incredibly intelligent Graves, looking for a companion and for the two brothers he lost in the war. There's also a certain amount of Lawrence trying to find his innocence again what it was like to be a boy and have adventures simply for the sake of having adventures. There's a purity in that.
"But there's also a part of Lawrence that loved to be the legend, to feel love from other people, if not from an entire nation. Wounded psychologically and physically, he needs to feel that adoration again."
And, yes, there's some real climbing in The Oxford Roof Climber's Rebellion. Rooney took some rock-climbing lessons for his role, but he'd already had a bit of practice in the Rockies filming the CBC mini-series Everest.
"There's something great about doing purely physical work onstage," he smiles. "You can't act it or cheat it. The body has to take over, and that's always excitingly liberating for a performer and an audience."