Reviews - Fringe 2019

Journey to the East

By Brian Morton
Published July 25, 2019


"Journey to the East" is a site-specific production performed in the nave of the New Vision Church at Main and MacNab, only a few metres away from what once was the centre of performing arts in Hamilton, the "Great Hall" at Hamilton Place.

This is a full-length two act play, making this production something quite different than most of the shorter productions that are more typical Fringe festival fare. This is not Naturalism!

Based upon a 1932 novella by German writer Herman Hesse, it is an exploration of ideas around spirituality, existentialism and the plight of refugees in the era immediately following the end of the First World War. The play, written over a period of fifteen years by Tottering Biped's Artistic Director Trevor Copp, features a cast of three and is directed by Richard Beaune.

This is a very different theatrical experience to the other plays featured in the 2019 Hamilton Fringe. For one, it is a finished play with a cast and production team that have been working on it for several years now. Secondly, the play is chock full of rich imagery with symbolic and expressionistic elements. It is not meant to be taken literally, but instead depends heavily on an audience interpreting what they see and hear.

In the first act we find ourselves up in the balcony of the church, looking down from above at the onstage action. The lighting is sparse, but we see a man in a soldier's uniform (Michael Hannigan), drawing a spiral on the floor.

We experience a moment of sheer horror as we follow the soldiers who have been tunnelling underground to lay explosives under the trenches of the opposing army. They are discovered, hand to hand combat ensues, and one soldier is left behind to die alone in the dark, an act of cowardice that haunts those who survive it.

This traumatic experience is dramatized using a series of rich images, often created with the cast's bodies, which also includes Zach Parsons and playwright Trevor Copp, writhing about on the floor.

At the end of the war, our protagonist finds himself on a spiritual journey, following a stream of refugees as they slowly walk - "east" - toward an unknown metaphorical destination.

By the second act, the audience has now been moved into a circle around the stage and we see the final events of the play from a more typical perspective of a theatre production. Some of what we have been led to believe from the first act is unravelled with a more mundane explanation for the events that we have witnessed earlier on. It is thus left up to the audience to draw their own conclusions as to which version of the two stories was real.

Still, we discover that the imagery is rich, with a violin that represents the artistic soul of one character that is sold in a crisis of faith. A spiritual guide helps our hero to understand what he has lost and bartered away.

I would encourage an audience to grab the opportunity to see such a well-realized production that has something truly profound to say about the struggles of humanity. In wake of the "othering" of refugees that is prevalent in North America at present, it offers a very important perspective on life and the human condition.

Brian Morton is a director and playwright, and was the recipient of the 2013 Hamilton Arts Award for Theatre. In 1988, after two years training in Montreal at the National Theatre School of Canada, Morton was the founder and first artistic director of Theatre Terra Nova, which operated out of a 100 seat theatre on Dundurn Street. Three years after that, he was a partner with Guy Sprung in the Evelyn Group, which reopened the historic 750 seat Tivoli Theatre, as a venue for live performance with a production of Douglas Rodger’s play “How Could You, Mrs Dick?”, which dramatized the story of Hamilton’s notorious Evelyn Dick. With Theatre Erebus, he produced the UK premieres of four Canadian plays for the 1990 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His stage adaptation of Sylvia Fraser’s “My Father’s House”, has had five productions, since it debuted in in 1992, at the Dundas Centre for the Arts. Morton’s “New Talent” was the highest grossing show in the 2008 Hamilton Fringe Festival, and in 2010, it toured to the London and Toronto Fringe Festivals. Brian’s original musical, “Under the Apple Tree”, about a shooting that happened backstage, at the Lyric theatre on Mary street in November 1921, debuted in the 2018 Hamilton Fringe Festival, and was presented at the 300-seat Zoetic Theatre; it got a second run at the Pearl Company, this past November. Brian was also the producer of the 2012 Hamilton Fringe Festival. He is currently a drama critic, and arts journalist for "VIEW Magazine", and has also published articles in the “Hamilton Spectator” and the “McMaster Silhouette”.

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