Persephone Productions’ staging of Paul Van Dyke’s Oroonoko arrives in timely fashion for Black History month. Adapted from Aphra Behn’s 17th century novel of the same title, Oroonoko has the feel of a homily, with the dialogue somewhat staid and the story predictable. Yet the performances are sincere and affecting, at best injecting a fresh and palpable energy into these old lines.
The tale of Oroonoko – an African prince who is tricked into slavery – is woven through Behn’s own life. In the sterile safety of an English manor house, two women meet. The conventional and priggish Clarice (Rebecca Croll) has invited Behn (Shannon Hamilton) to tea. In return, Behn regales Clarice with stories of her chequered past, including her encounter with the slave Caesar – formally known as Prince Oroonoko – and her time as a spy in the service of Charles II.
Behn’s stage character is only slightly less corseted in expression than her dullard companion – all whale bone and no backbone. In real life, however, Behn was a fascinating figure: an early proponent for the abolition of slavery and one of the first known women to earn her living as a writer. Both her espionage and her meeting with the slave leader Caesar are considered historically accurate.
From England, the story shifts to Africa and the love story between Oroonoko and Imoinda. Jaa Smith-Johnson and Aiza Ntibarikure are moving as the star-crossed lovers, betrayed and sold to the same English plantation owner, Byam (a brilliant Christopher Moore). But their story is full of convenient coincidences that ultimately detract from otherwise powerful performances.
The same can be said of the cast at large. In a ridiculous James Bond-like moment, Byam blows Behn’s cover when he demands, “Aren’t you really a spy in the service of Charles II?” If Behn did indeed write such a line then this Oroonoko’s faithfulness to the original is its downfall. As it is, such limp dialogue acts to turn this dark tale into a tragicomedy.
Yet however simplistic it feels, however dry its musings on race and gender, Oroonoko moves, thanks in part to Van Dyke’s brilliant direction. A beautiful late scene sees two worlds collide, as Clarice, lost in the topiary, runs in search of an exit. While Byam’s slaves flee through the jungle, their shadows – cast against a white sheet – cross momentarily with her figure, and the story finds the energy and depth it so needs.
Oroonoko, Written and directed by Paul Van Dyke
Centre MAI, 3680 rue Jeanne Mance, February 6-17