MATHILDE by Véronique Olmi, translated by Morwyn Brebner, directed by Kelly Thornton, with Martha Burns and Tom McCamus. Presented by Nightwood at the Young Centre (55 Mill). Previews from Friday (April 28), opens Wednesday (May 3) and runs to May 27, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday and Saturday 2 pm. $28-$32, previews $15, limited $10 rush. 416-866-8666. Rating: NNNNN
A marriage falls apart when the wife has an affair.
It's been a theatre staple since the Greeks (think Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, though other things are at play there as well), and one potentially ripe for melodramatic treatment.
But in Véronique Olmi's Mathilde, the latest production by Nightwood Theatre, the affair and its aftermath are marked by a passion and, ironically, a starkness that make the script far from ordinary.
The play starts in the middle of a tense confrontation: Mathilde has returned home after months away to collect her things and deal with her husband, Pierre.
"That opening is one of the things I find exciting about the play," says Tom McCamus, who plays Pierre to Martha Burns's Mathilde. "You only slowly discover who these two people are, what their relationship is and where Mathilde has been.
"The surprises for the viewer come pretty fast in the script's first 15 pages."
And audiences aren't the only ones dealing with surprise. Pierre is both astonished and confused when he sees his wife.
"He can't believe she's come back, for one thing," offers the actor, who's just finished a run in The Innocent Eye Test and is as well known for his work on stage (Richard III, Peter Pan), film (The Sweet Hereafter, I Love A Man In Uniform) and TV (Waking Up Wally: The Walter Gretzky Story).
"He also starts from the assumption that she's done the wrong thing, and he feels a righteousness that allows him to accuse Mathilde for her actions. He's amazed when she turns the accusation back on him and says she's done nothing wrong."
Mathilde's fervour burns brightly throughout the hour-long piece, especially in her attempt to describe her feelings for her lover. And under the surface, Pierre shows his own brand of tension, though Mathilde accuses him of being no more than tepid.
"The trouble is that Pierre, an oncologist, runs his life intellectually," explains McCamus. "Still, I think he's a passionate man who believes strongly in his ideals and the fixed structure of the world.
"Treating people with cancer, he's forced to deal with emotions every day, being aware of what his patients are going through but not being affected by them. He just doesn't deal with anyone's feelings in an obvious manner."
The script has a series of emotional levels, he adds, a quality that's captured in Morwyn Brebner's translation from the original French.
"I think this English version has a Parisian feel," continues McCamus, who spent a combined 15 years at Shaw and Stratford. "It has to do with a sophistication, a subdued passion, but at the same time a fast back-and-forth exchange between husband and wife.
"They've been together for 13 years, so Martha and I are working on finding that married shorthand that people have, that sense of being able to refer to something that happened years back with just a word or an image."
The two actors have worked together before, though never on a two-hander. They shared the stage in Sweet Bird Of Youth and Long Day's Journey Into Night, and their films include the O'Neill script, Hindsight and Siblings.
"It's good that we have that background," admits McCamus, "because a play like Mathilde requires that the actors share a strong emotional connection both in the words and what's happening beneath them. This is a play where a lot is left unsaid.
"Pierre especially is someone who sits on his feelings a lot of the time, and as an actor I have to figure out when to go for the emotion and when to back off. You can't push it too far, can't play it all with the same emotional intensity."