This production is beguiling. It’s true to Mr. Doyle’s writing in both style and spirit. If you’ve grown up around family farms, then it is like having a lucid dream. If you just know the Gatineau Hills through recreational day trips, then I promise, you will never see them the same way again. Every crumbling footprint of a settler’s cabin will come alive.
Director Janet Irwin is courageous enough to continue Mr. Doyle’s use of the first-person narrative in this adaptation. She uses his word pictures to transport us upriver. If you are a fan of Mr. Doyle’s writing, then you will appreciate this homage to his great talent. She also allows the plot to flit around as it does in Mr. Doyle’s books. It’s a disorienting but fun experience, and necessary to immerse the audience in the Irish culture nestled in those French hills. Don’t worry. Just go along for the ride. Everything gets tied up neatly in the end.
Up to Low also invites you to be a witness to the birth of a legend. The play sets us up by showing how existing legends work in the life of the community. Each one entwining itself around the other. I’m sure the people there would just call them stories. But they’re legends because of the power they hold.
Subsistence living, and isolation means you need to know the people around you and how to deal with them. Mention a name, and a story will follow. And then a phrase which sums up the community’s judgement of the person.
It’s a disorienting but fun experience, and necessary to immerse the audience in the Irish culture nestled in those French hills. Don’t worry. Just go along for the ride. Everything gets tied up neatly in the end.
Director Irwin’s use of a Greek chorus emphasizes the importance of this process. It also gives a wink to what you’ll witness in real conversations. The stories are so well known that everyone joins in for the punchlines.
Why is one man given so much tolerance and support? We only find out when the judgement phrase is given. “He was a good man until a tank ran over his head in The War.” Why is another given distance and suspicion? “He hit her for getting in his way. While her arm was still bleeding.”
The legend we see being born in this play is about Young Tommy and Poor Bridget. The play ends, just as the legend begins. So, I had an epilogue running through my mind as I went home.
Picture the usual circle of men outside the church, having their post communion smoke. “That Young Tommy has the strength of ten men. Yes, but he only got that after the Humming Healer delivered a blessing straight from the Blessed Virgin herself. That’s right, to help with The Healing. They say he’ll have it for as long as he loves Poor Bridget. Well, knowing the men of that family, I’d say he’s got it for life then. Yes, he’ll be strong for life. He’ll be strong for life because of his love.”
As I said, this play is beguiling.
Up to Low is at the Babs Asper Theatre at the National Arts Centre until May 19, 2018. Tickets are available online or at the NAC box office.