Theatre

Now and Glenn: Soulpepper reinvigorates Glenn Gould play

With his aquiline profile and an amorphous body that at times seems to have been de-boned, Diego Matamoros would appear to be the perfect actor for Soulpepper Theatre’s revival of Glenn, David Young’s play about Glenn Gould. As it happens, however, Matamoros is occupied elsewhere at Soulpepper right now, playing a Tartuffe as greasy as a Scottish breakfast. Instead, Gould, Canada’s favourite eccentric musical genius, is portrayed by Brent Carver. And Jeff Lillico. And Mike Ross. And Steven Sutcliffe. For Glenn, if you’re not familiar with it, gives us four aspects of the man, at four stages in his life, interacting with one another à la Michel Tremblay’s Albertine, en cinq temps.

And while none of those four actors alone would be an ideal embodiment of Gould, together they do indeed catch different facets of the man. The perpetually boyish Lillico, with a mop of black hair, is the intense, fervent young Gould captured in the famous photos on the album cover of the pianist’s landmark 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. (Blown-up reproductions of which can be seen on the side walls of the Michael Young Theatre.) Ross’s Glenn, looking sweaty and uncomfortable in de rigueur black tie and tails, makes palpable the anxieties of Gould the concert performer. Sutcliffe, prickly and driven, is Gould the recording-studio perfectionist, while Carver brings the mellow wisdom of those twinkling eyes of his to the aging, ailing but still ecstatically visionary artist.

And Young is primarily concerned with Gould the artist. His engagingly cerebral play—first produced by Necessary Angel in 1992—is an homage to the musician’s passion for the intricacies of structure, written as a string of 32 short scenes that parallel the aria and variations of the Goldberg. Gould’s many quirks—his hypochondria, his hyper-sensitivity to cold, his strange posture at the keyboard, his reclusiveness—are seen largely from the man’s own viewpoint as necessities for his artistic endeavours. We get glimpses of his domestic life and personal relationships only as they relate to his work.

Gould’s idiosyncrasies, in fact, aren’t much next to what we’ve come to expect from pop musicians. The controversy over his playing style—hunched at eye-level with the keys, singing and humming to himself—his experiments with tempi, his editing-together of multiple performances to achieve a perfect rendering in the studio… all this can only be seen as radical now in the context of how rigidly conservative the classical music scene was in the mid-20th century. Indeed, Gould kicked open the door for later flamboyant shit-disturbers like Nigel Kennedy. You need that historical perspective to understand why Gould’s playing Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor at an unconventionally stately tempo would seem so outrageous. (John Roberts, Gould’s close friend and collaborator, once described to me how an impish Gould revealed his plans for playing the concerto’s first movement at half-speed as if he were about to commit a singular act of mischief.) Or why Gould’s fondness for pop singers Barbra Streisand and Petula Clark came across as a “serious” musician’s endearing weakness.

Young’s play has been revived numerous times, including at the Stratford Festival in 1999. I hadn’t seen Glenn since 2006, when a Calgary group called the Blacklist Theatre Project did a very fine production, directed by Kevin McKendrick. There are some vivid touches in Diana Leblanc’s vigorous new staging for Soulpepper. Most striking is a scene where Ross’s Glenn, the star performer, bows endlessly before an ecstatic audience, while the other Glenns pelt him with roses until, with the help of Michael Walton’s superb lighting, it begins to look like he’s standing in a shower of blood. It’s a moment that boldly underscores Gould’s disgusted descriptions of performing and competing in the classical arena as “gladiatorial” and a “blood sport.”

Of the four Glenns, I was the least satisfied with—or perhaps, the most irritated by—Sutcliffe as the anal, game-playing control freak. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the actor’s flavorful impersonations of a coarse New York recording engineer and that formidable Austrian conductor, Herbert von Karajan. It should be noted that none of the four cast members plays—or even pretends to play—piano onstage; their mimed “performances” consist merely of imitating Gould’s habits of crossing his legs and conducting the music as he played. Gould’s recordings, however, are ever-present in Paul Humphrey’s sound design.

Instead of using piano keys as a visual theme—the most obvious choice, and one employed in the Calgary production—Martha Mann’s décor is all about seating. Quite appropriate, given Gould’s fanatical insistence on using his own specially constructed short-legged chair when performing. Said chair figures at centrestage, while two park benches flank the set—one of them complete with an imitation of Ruth Abernethy’s beloved bronze Gould sculpture, which sits outside the Glenn Gould Studio at CBC’s Front Street headquarters. Needless to say, Mann’s costumes predominantly consist of the ivy cap, scarf, long coat and fingerless gloves—reproduced here in quadruplicate—that became Gould’s signature getup. Again, hardly eccentric in the age of Lady Gaga.

What impressed me most about Young’s Glenn this time round was the way the playwright attempts to get inside Gould’s brain and illuminate, not just his oddities, but his purity of purpose. His Gould is an artist-hero in the same way as Gould’s own hero, Kafka—one who sets out bravely and stubbornly on an often-lonely quest for transcendence through art.

Glenn runs to Oct. 1. www.soulpepper.ca

Photo: Actors (left to right) Mike Ross, Brent Carver, Steven Sutcliffe and (front) Jeff Lillico portray facets of pianist Glenn Gould in Soulpepper Theatre’s revival of David Young’s Glenn, at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts. (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

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