CLOSER by Patrick Marber, directed by Dennis Garnhum, with Shaun Smyth, Angela Vint, Gina Wilkinson and Blair Williams. Canadian Stage (26 Berkeley). Opens tonight (Thursday, March 15) and runs to April 7, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm and Saturday 2 pm. $20-$45. 416-368-3110. we're lucky blair williams is still in the theatre. He almost gave it up for activism. After graduating from the National Theatre School, Williams went straight to the Shaw Festival and spent five years in the classics. But then he got fired up by grassroots politics, and worked for groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights In Ontario.
He cut back on his performances, doing the occasional SummerWorks, Theatre Centre or Rhubarb show, and his activism fed his craft.
"But I got disillusioned with pissing at the castle wall," he says with a little laugh. "I realized that I could get closer to addressing what I feel about the human condition, about fundamentally changing the world, through theatre and the questions that it raises."
And so he came back. Though he still spends much of his time at the Shaw Festival, Williams makes a Toronto appearance in Closer, Patrick Marber's hot script about a foursome of contemporary Brits who ride a wild sexual carousel, playing games and changing partners at every revolution.
There's even a grippingly funny and sharp-edged scene in which the two straight men tease each other during Internet sex, as one uses the anonymity of the Net to pretend to be female.
Williams plays Larry, a dermatologist who becomes involved with two women, a photographer and a stripper.
"Marber says his characters meet, fuck, fuck each other up and then fuck off," smiles Williams, musing on the play in the Canadian Stage boardroom.
"Larry, who comes from the working class, is initially the most naive of the four, someone who can't help sticking his fingers into a rotating fan blade. Soon he's entangled in this knot of a foursome."
Williams is expert at analyzing his characters, finding out what makes them tick. He's one of those rare performers who can be articulate about the whys and hows of a part but doesn't cut the brain off from the heart in delivering a stage figure.
And he doesn't just do it through what's in his head.
Sometimes it's through what's on his head. His hair is short now, and he'll cut it even shorter before opening and trim it once a week during the run.
"When I first read a script, I listen for the music of the text, the rhythms of the words. Marber is a musician, specifying on the page the rhythms the lines need to make sense. He defines your breath, which in turn defines your emotions, which affects the thought process you need to say the words.
"Then I get a picture in my head of what Larry looks like, and it's not what I look like. Cutting my hair -- with another character I might grow a beard -- is how I transform myself. It helps how I stand, how I see the wrinkles on Larry's face. It's only then that I can physically inhabit him."
The actor's technique works with classical stage roles like the title figure in Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma. Williams, returning to Niagara-on-the-Lake next summer, was tremendously empathetic in Toronto as the lover of a man dying from AIDS-related complications in Daniel MacIvor's The Soldier Dreams, and dangerously fascinating in Live With It as gay playwright Joe Orton, who shocked audiences with the sexual nature of his works.
"Orton changed how Britain looks at itself and at theatre," adds the actor. "I can't imagine Marber's Closer or Mark Ravenhill's Shopping And Fucking without Orton's plays as background.
"These days we're more used to the commonality of sex. It's not as sensationalized as it was in the 60s, removed from conjugal responsibility. People do it, think about it, admit to both. No one can take the moral high ground.
"The irony is that the four people in Marber's play try to get closer to each other through sex, but in the process they move further apart. They're like a lot of people who aim for that closeness but distrust proximity. In the end, like Larry, they learn but don't change." *
2000 The Doctor's Dilemma; Still Life
1999 The Madras House; Uncle Vanya
1998 John Bull's Other Island; Live With It
1997 The Soldier Dreams;