Saturday, April 25, 2009


This is Carmen Grant, the actress whose performance last night at Vancouver Island University's Malaspina Theatre was absolutely masterful. Ms. Grant was alone on stage for 110 minutes without an intermission, and in all that time there was not a sound from the audience - not a cough, not a rustle of papers. We were entranced.

The play, a presentation of Theatre One, was The Syringa Tree, a memoir of life in South Africa under apartheid. Ms. Grant played 24 different characters. The central character, Elizabeth (Lizzie) , is a six-year-old girl at the beginning of the play, a young mother at the end. Through Lizzie's eyes we see the lives of her family, neighbours, her nanny, Salamina - Salamina's family, even the local police. Ms. Grant changed characters by changing her voice and accent, her gestures, the way she held her body - and she did it at times in mid-sentence.

Not only were there no other actors onstage, there was a bare minimum of scenery. A rope and board swing hung from the ceiling at centre stage, and a large circle of light was projected on the curtains behind the stage. Sometimes the image of a syringa tree was projected there, and sometimes the circle looked like a huge, full moon. Apart from the circular mat on the floor, that was it.

The Syringa Tree was written by Pamela Gien, who played the parts herself in New York and London. In an interview for the United Nations Chronicle, Ms. Gien says

"It was in 1996, an early spring night, that the events of 1967 came flooding back to me. I was 10 years old then, growing up in South Africa.

And almost 30 years later, the incidents of a terrible night, so carefully tucked away for so long, were full blown in my mind, like an old ghost, stepping forward from the shadows, not to whisper but to shout and shout and shout. ...

The tragedy was the murder of my grandfather on his farm, Clova, five hours by car north of Johannesburg. At that young age, my response was to hide it away like a bad dream. Clova was lost to us forever, the idyllic playground of my childhood holidays, a simple but beloved place."

To read the entire interview, click here.

I went to see The Syringa Tree with expectations that weren't very high. The subject matter is something that I find so profoundly disturbing, I wasn't sure I could put aside my anger and sadness long enough to give the play a chance. As it turned out, The Syringa Tree - and Carmen Grant's performance - didn't give me a chance. I was swept away, along with everyone else in the theatre.

It has long been a bone in my craw that in Nanaimo, all a performer has to do is show up in order to merit a standing ovation. (Yes, I'm sure that's an exaggeration, but it's not all that far off the mark). For me, a performer basically has to walk on water before I'll get to my feet. I don't get to my feet often, but I did last night, with enthusiasm.

So, friends, take it from me. If The Syringa Tree comes to town, see it, please. You won't regret it.


Reya Mellicker said...

Wow. 24 characters in 110 minutes? That IS incredible. I hope she had a massage scheduled for after the play.

Thanks for the review.

Sandra Leigh said...

I don't know, Reya. In an interview with one of our local papers, she said "When this show comes down I'll be really tired. I'll probably cry a lot." Oh, my god. I just noticed that she's doing two performances a day. Tomorrow is the last day. Forget the scheduled massage. I hope she has a masseuse sitting backstage, just waiting for the curtain to come down!

Lizzy Frizzfrock said...

Beautiful, I'd love to see a performance of this play. Perhaps I can put a bug in the ear of someone in Austin, TX. We have good theatre here/there/near here.

Sandra Leigh said...

Wow, Lizzy. I googled "live theatre Austin TX" and found ten of them. You have oodles o' theatres. Great idea, putting a bug in their ears. Let me know if you succeed, okay? There's somebody else in Austin that I know would love to see it.

John Hayes said...

That does sound like a truly amazing performance, & your nice write up really piqued my interest about the play. Thanks.

Cuppa Jo said...

Sounds like an amazing play.

Sandra Leigh said...

John, Cuppa Jo, it is an amazing play. Two days later, I'm still stunned by it.

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