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Here’s why classic theatre like The Horse and His Boy and The Front Page needs a helping hand | The Star

New play development is a major part of the Canadian theatre ecology, ensuring that new voices and new stories are always coming across Toronto stages. And though new plays also premiere in the summer theatre festival world, there is an emphasis on classics, particularly at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals: known titles, famous authors and (likely decades-long) connections that an audience member brings with them into the theatre.

But, by nature, classics are products of their time, so what happens when a piece from the past clashes with the present in distracting, unhelpful and sometimes downright offensive ways?

This summer, the Shaw and the Stratford festivals have both brought in Canadian playwrights to adapt problematic texts from the past.

At the Shaw, writer Anna Chatterton joined forces with director Christine Brubaker to tackle The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis, continuing the Shaw’s exploration of The Chronicles of Narnia for young audiences.

It’s the fifth in the seven-book series, the only one set entirely in Narnia, and follows two young people journeying across a land on the brink of war — a story ripe for theatrical invention. Except Lewis’s descriptions of the northern land of Narnia versus the southern area Calormen are infused by less-than-subtle references to Western and Middle Eastern cultures, depicting Narnians as moral and independent (and fair-skinned) and Calormen as cruel slave masters (and dark-skinned).


“The book is complicated,” Brubaker says with a sigh. “I would tell people what I was working on and I would get, ‘Ooh, gosh’ … But it’s funny, I grew up with those books. I was brought up as a very devout Christian. It had a lot of meaning for me. So I was very interested in pushing on that meaning.”

Brubaker’s first decision was to assemble a team of women artists to counter the male paradigm of the story; it’s called The Horse and His Boy after all, despite having a strong female lead. That team included playwright Chatterton, who abandoned an attempt to read the book as a child when no female characters appeared in the first chapter. But she was glad to revisit the series.

“Language-wise, I love how C.S. Lewis created the way Narnians speak, it’s almost Shakespearean, so I tried to stay true to that. But it was obvious what we were going to get rid of right away,” she says.

Adds Brubaker: “We immediately took out any reference to skin colour and dislocated (the characters) from some of those tropes. If the line was ‘I can tell you’re from the North from the way you look’ it was ‘I can tell you’re from the North from your spirit.’ Looking at the book there are all sorts of references to the orientalism of turbans, samovars and sabres, so we placed it in a world that was more fantastical and less specific.” .

Almost contrarily, Chatterton says her challenge was to address the broadness in the language. “It was a stripping away and then an adding to, finding new ways to talk about the North and the South, and trying not to make statements about the Southern type of people or the Northern type of people, and describe people on an individual basis.”

One could imagine that adapting the story from a novel into a play would offer Brubaker and Chatterton more chances to change aspects of the original that haven’t aged well and, in some instances, this is true. Certain cross-gender casting choices needed to be made, given the ensemble of actors available, including casting Jenny L. Wright as the Christ-like lion Aslan (whom Brubaker says is referred to not as “she” but “they”), as well as changing a king to a queen and the wise male figure to a woman.

Michael Healey doesn’t have that luxury at the Stratford Festival, where he’s in rehearsals for the comedy The Front Page with director Graham Abbey, opening in August.


The original 1928 script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur was a Broadway hit, eventually turned into the beloved film My Girl Friday, but the story about a journalist and his editor harbouring a wrongfully accused escapee (a white man charged with killing a Black police officer) has some glaring gender and racial politics that Healey says a 2019 audience wouldn’t forgive.

Abbey and Healey both agreed it was a good play that needed some overhauling, which makes Healey’s task more complicated.

“The first job for me as an adapter when it’s a play like this, a play that works and has worked for 90 years, is to not f--k it up,” he says. “It’s a Lamborghini, it has a mysterious engine. I can’t wreck that engine.”

Furthermore, the play’s time period is the source of part of its comedy. “Those guys of that period get to have both things, ‘It’s hilarious that he just made a joke at that woman’s expense and aren’t those newspapermen terrible?’ … It’s still set when it’s set, so it’s a racist and misogynist time, so how do you, for an audience, describe those things but describe them critically?”

One change is transforming the editor role from a man to a woman, played by Maev Beaty, adding some back story to make it plausible for a woman in 1928 to be running a newspaper. In the original script, there are no female reporters or perspectives from the Black community, so Healey’s script makes space for that representation as well.

“But every time you build more story lines, for me it’s like putting another five pounds in the trunk of the Lamborghini, right? You have to be careful,” he says.

The second job of the adapter, according to Healey, is “to contain in it an argument for (the story’s) contemporary usefulness.” And for him, this is the easiest part of adapting The Front Page.

“A play about why a strong and independent press is useful, particularly when people in power are thugs, it’s a bit of a gimme. As soon as Trump labelled the press enemies of the people, this play became relevant again. Nobody’s morally pure and there’s so much comedy to be had there. But the overall message is, these are bums and you need these bums.”

Likewise Brubaker wanted to stick to what she considered the heart of The Horse and His Boy: “To me, it was a young boy following his impulses and a girl who leads him the way. He doesn’t know where he’s going, he just knows he needs to move and change, and in doing that he finds himself.

“Anna wrote a beautiful line, ‘Who are you when you travel? What do you leave behind? Who are you when you travel? What parts of you do you find?’ It’s the heartbeat of the show in many ways.”

Jay Turvey as Bree, Matt Nethersole as Shasta and Genny Sermonia as the tail with the cast of The Horse and His Boy at the Shaw Festival.Ben Carlson and Maev Beaty star in the Stratford Festival’s The Front Page.

There’s room for old and new stories to be told alongside each other at festivals like Stratford and Shaw, but some stories need some help to get their hearts beating again.

The Horse and His Boy is at the Festival Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, until July 21. See shawfest.com for information. The Front Page is at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen St., Stratford, from July 30 to Oct. 25. See stratfordfestival.ca for information.

Carly Maga is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @RadioMaga

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