Theatre@York ‘bewitches’ with Peter Barnes’ macabre satire

Dora Award-winning director Nigel Shawn Williams takes the helm of Theatre@York‘s production of The Bewitched by macabre British satirist Peter Barnes, opening April 21 at York University. This nightmarish recreation of late 17th-century Spanish society explores the sick hilarity that ensues when the imbecilic and impotent King Carlos II fails to produce an heir.

Carlos’ mother and wife are at each other’s throats, each supporting contending candidates for the succession. Corrupt courtiers and fanatical clergy strive to outdo each other in devising grotesque restoratives of the royal potency, with no proposed remedy too monstrous or absurd. 

Barnes’ lurid depiction of a dynasty in crisis swings wildly between horror and farce. Deformity, madness, epileptic convulsions, flagellation, torture, demented ritual, Latin incantations and shrieking execrations abound in the court. It’s all the more shocking set against the utter lack of concern of the ruling class for the lives of the powerless.

Barnes may depict the powers that be as both insane and corrupt, but he offers his audience the catharsis of hysterical laughter.  

“Incredibly funny” is how Williams describes the play. “Barnes tapped into that early 1970s British humour that spawned Monty Python and Benny Hill. It’s absurd and crass, there are a lot of jokes about bodily functions, but it’s also got this remarkable intellect and the language is unique.

Left: Director Nigel Shawn Williams

“Though it’s a comedy written in a world of carnival, The Bewitched is at heart a political play,” said Williams. “Barnes is a socialist in a lot of ways and Bewitched is a reaction to the poverty, unemployment and financial ruin he saw around him. The play was written in 1974, a time of great social and political upheaval in the UK. Everyone was questioning leadership.

“That’s what makes this play particularly relevant today, in the midst of our global recession,” Williams said. “Then and now, we see a political climate where people are clamouring for change and it’s like voices echoing in an empty cavern. Corruption, deceit and maintenance of a status quo that leave ordinary people feeling like sheep – timeless political themes perhaps?”

Barnes (1931-2004) leaped to instant fame with his play The Ruling Class (1968), an absurdist extravaganza about an English aristocrat who insists that he is God. The 1972 movie version (adapted by Barnes for the screen) earned Peter O’Toole an Oscar nomination. Other works for the stage include Leonardo’s Last Supper (1969), Laughter (1978) and Red Noses (1985, produced by Theatre@York in 1996). Barnes’ screenplay for Enchanted April was nominated for the Best Adaptation Oscar in 1992.

Left: Peter Barnes

A Toronto-based actor and in-demand director, Williams is the recipient of three Dora Awards: two for outstanding performance ( Volcano Theatre’s Two Words for Snow in 2003 and Alberta Theatre Project’s Six Degrees of Separation in 1995) and one for outstanding direction of York screenwriting Professor Colleen Wagner’s play The Monument for Obsidian Theatre in 2006. Williams and Wagner are frequent collaborators; in February of this year he directed a staged reading of her most recent play, Home, at Albert Theatre Projects’ Enbridge playRites Festival. In 2007 he directed Laius for Nightswimming, part of Ned Dickens’ City of Wine cycle. (York University takes on Seven from City of Wine as part of Nightswimming’s ambitious staging involving theatre schools from coast to coast May 2 to 9 at Theatre Passe Muraille.)

Working with Williams on The Bewitched is an ensemble of 25 undergraduate and graduate actors, performing the roles of some 40 characters. A talented creative team of undergraduates is handling all aspects of the production design and execution.

The Bewitched runs April 19 to 24, opening Tuesday, April 21 in the Joseph G. Green Studio Theatre, Centre for Film & Theatre on York’s Keele campus. Previews will take place April 19 and 20 at 7:30pm. Performances run at 7:30pm nightly, plus matinees April 22 and 24 at 1pm. Admission is $15, students and seniors are $10. The April 19 preview is pay-what-you-can. Tickets for the April 20 preview are $5. To order tickets, visit the York University Box Office Web site or call 416-736-5888.