THE SWANNE: QUEEN VICTORIA (THE SEDUCTION OF NEMESIS) written and directed by Peter Hinton, with Diane D'Aquila, Margot Dionne, Michelle Fisk, Michelle Giroux, Tanja Jacobs, Thom Marriott, Seun Olagunju, Brad Rudy and Jeffrey Wetsch. Presented by the Stratford Festival at the Studio Theatre, Stratford. Opens tonight (Thursday, August 19) and runs in rep to September 26. $52-$59.48. 1-800-567-1600. Rating: NNNNN
With The Swanne, Peter Hinton has written a work that's as epic, challenging and theatrical as Tony Kushner's celebrated Angels In America. Just as Kushner's work encapsulates the politics, mores and society of 1980s America, Hinton's high-flying Swanne looks at the 20 years of English history leading up to the 1837 coronation of Victoria and finds surprising political and emotional parallels to today.
Hinton's currently directing the third part of his trilogy, opening tonight at the Stratford Festival. Credit Stratford for giving Hinton a chance over the past three years to mount the three instalments making up the nine-hour show.
Juxtaposing the lives of gays, rebels and theatre folk against the larger political picture of the monarchy, Hinton has created a richly textured saga that deserves a festival mainstage production.
"When I was in England in 1993," recalls the playwright, "I found a circular that talked about a black child that Charlotte, the daughter of King George IV, had out of wedlock. It was a fantastic piece of propaganda from a tabloid of the time, and it started me thinking about the needs and demands of a society that would read that sort of thing."
Back in the 80s and early 90s, Hinton was at the forefront of cutting-edge Toronto theatre, working inventively with both text and style.
The Swanne tells the story of Drina - the future Queen Victoria - and her vision of the underbelly world of London, where the most influential people are whores, queers, fiery social reformers and conniving politicians. Key to the tale is a boy, the illegitimate son of Princess Charlotte and her black servant, whose birthright is the English throne.
"It's a piece I kept returning to when I became most disheartened with the hard life of theatre," says Hinton with a sigh. "I wrote what I thought theatre should be and do, with no thought of its being produced. I ended up with a 25-hour show in which dozens of actors played about 300 characters."
In 1998 he showed the telephone-book-sized manuscript to Paula Dankert of Playwrights' Workshop Montreal (Hinton's now the group's dramaturge), who gave it a 24-hour marathon reading. A shortened version - a mere 12 hours - was read later in Toronto, and Stratford's Andrey Tarasiuk saw it and invited Hinton to continue developing the script at the festival.
Though all three plays work as a whole, Hinton - who's adapting Timothy Findley's Famous Last Words for Stratford - has given each its own sense of unity, so any one will make theatrical sense to viewers.
"I'm telling a story about Victoria but using a Georgian sensibility, since English ideas were shifting in the first several decades of the 19th century.
"And as in any period of change, when people try to keep up with what's going on, the conditions for powerful drama exist."