Thursday, November 5, 2009

no great mischief makes even me weep for cape breton

let me be frank: when i heard neptune was running a play about a guy from rural cape breton who leaves town to follow his big city dreams, then returns home to confront the ghosts that haunt him, i shuddered, then groaned, then laid down for a bit. i have seen far too many plays about that remote isle and its eternally sighing. albeit, never one where the big city dream was dentistry. i resent the way cb hogs nova scotia's identity - despite having lived in scotland for seven years, i don't wear kilts, play the bagpipes, nor am i a mc or a mac.

and then, the play started. alistair macleod's no great mischief - the stage version of the award-winning 1999 novel. it is lovely! that's scott munn's photo of david mcilwrait as alexander macdonald (he who leaves) and duncan fraser in the back as calum macdonald (he who stayed). as a bonus, jim lahey from the trailer park boys is in it; well, john dunsworth, anyway.

you can read my CC review here, or below. i started with a molson-inspired rant, which wasn't as funny on paper as it was in my head.

No Great Mischief
I hate Cape Breton. Well, not the place itself, but the cultural imperialism a cabal of Capers has thrust on the rest of us Nova Scotians. I’m not a fisherman or a fiddler, I don’t live in a windswept mining town and I’m not called Hamish, Calum or Alexander.
I live in a city, party in living rooms, not kitchens, and I don’t know your father’s mother’s cousin. I didn’t outgrow my village’s simple ways and leave to find big city success, only to return and learn that it had much to teach me.
I listen to Joel Plaskett, not Rita McNeil, and know that Ashley’s a girl’s name, not a boy’s. I wear pants, not a kilt. My name is Jon, and I am Nova Scotian!
Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system: Neptune Theatre’s new Fountain Hall play is Alistair Macleod’s No Great Mischief.
It’s the story of a man who left his little rural Cape Breton home to make it in the big city, only to find he couldn’t leave the ghosts of his past. Neptune’s write-up says it chronicles “the MacDonald Clan’s voyage from the Scottish to the Cape Breton Highlands.”
Oh brother.
And then, the play starts. David McIlwrait is Alexander MacDonald, the bright spark son who escaped dreary Cape Breton for a big city job in dentistry. Duncan Fraser is Calum MacDonald, the broken, older brother left behind. The story, based on MacLeod’s 1999 novel, begins today, with the two men meeting to compare notes on life from middle-age.
Calum is lost in booze and regret, wrecked by the past and only staying on his feet long enough to go down swinging.
Alexander, meanwhile, shrugs off the past like a butterfly doffing his caterpillar skin and flies away. He’s got a family, a happy career and a pleasurable life.
As the brothers talk, the play flashes back through the stories that shaped their destinies, slipping across the ice to the disasters that broke Calum and convinced Alexander to leave.
The sizable cast switches between a host of grandparents, cousins, rivals and, in one memorable case, a desperate dog trying to swim across the Atlantic (well done, Shannon Lynch). Billy MacLellan, in particular, handles several key roles without confusing the audience.
At one point, Calum is warned to save for a rainy day.
“This is the rainy day,” he answers with the poetry that spices this rainy play.
Macleod’s masterful words, as channeled by playwright David Young, give you a sense of the real people and lives that formed the endless myths of the island. While set in Cape Breton, it could be Ireland, Scotland, Afghanistan, or any other heart-breaking land people have to leave, but can’t escape.
Jon Tattrie is a freelance journalist and writer. You can read his blog at
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