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Reviewed by:
  • Scenography in Canada: Selected Designers
  • Christopher Innes (bio)
Natalie Rewa . Scenography in Canada: Selected Designers University of Toronto Press. 242. $95.00, $60.00

The strength of this book is its 207 illustrations, almost all (apart from a few pencil sketches) in full colour. Lush, luxuriant, and visually engaging, these dominate: not only through sheer number, but also because of their placing as a complete and self-standing opening section. And wonderful pictures they are. What they clearly show is the highly individual approach and stylistic uniqueness of the chosen designers, as well as suggesting in aggregate the mature breadth of scenography displayed on Canadian stages.

Of course any selection from such a field, where artistic egos are in play, is tendentious - why not Cameron Porteus instead of Susan Benson, Murray Laufer instead of Jim Paxton? - yet Natalie Rewa's choices do incorporate the diversity and imaginative richness that she aims at. At the [End Page 447] same time, as her title suggests, this represents scenography in Canada, rather than any quintessentially Canadian scenography. Some of her chosen designers trained abroad - Susan Benson in the UK, Teresa Przblyski in Poland - while others have worked internationally, and with the one exception of Mary Kerr's designs for ceremonies at the Fifteenth Commonwealth Games (where traditional art of the Salish people is evoked) or one production in which Ken Macdonald combined Lawren Harris with Japanese design (the 1997 Vancouver Playhouse staging of 2000), the frame of artistic reference for all these featured designers turns out to be exclusively European: Brecht and Meyerhold and Erwin Piscator, Gordon Craig and Max Reinhardt, Chagall and Klimt, or Dadaists like Francis Picabia and Sonia Delaunay, Escher and Magritte.

Something of the same internationalism is also reflected in the selection of productions. Even though Rewa may deplore the fact, those she illustrates are overwhelmingly opera and musicals, or plays from the international repertoire as staged at the Stratford or Shaw festivals. And one production - Bella for the Judy Jarvis Dance Company in New York - is not Canadian in any way apart from Mary Kerr's involvement. But there is an even more serious problem with the focus of this book: the complete absence of any French-Canadian designers. This omission is made still more glaring by showcasing Michael Levine's designs for Robert Lepage, or Teresa Przybylski's setting for the Tarragon staging of a Michel Tremblay play. Surely the connection goes both ways?

As a result, the 'Canadian' framing of this book seems artificial. And the discussion of 'scenography' is in many ways equally problematic. Given the limitations of print, it is almost impossible to give any but the most cursory glimpse of the interconnections between theatre space, dramatic themes embedded in a playscript and metaphoric motifs developed for a given production, the design (both in technical and conceptual aspects) and the way the physical shaping of the stage choreographs the performance. Consequently, this only comes across, even in the most superficial way, primarily in the extra-theatrical work of Jim Plaxton's quasi-Veronese cityscapes constructed for the outdoor performances of Romeo and Juliet , Mary Kerr's Fifteenth Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremonies, or Astrid Jansons's Reflections installation at Expo '86. Otherwise by far the most interesting examples are where the materials document the design process - as with the whole sequence from sketchbook, through maquettes, to production photos in Michael Levine's design for Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung - which exemplifies the standard approach to design that Rewa wishes to supplant with the concept of scenography.

Rewa is, as she admits, striving for the impossible in trying to capture the ephemeral geography of performance in visual stills and verbal descriptions. And she is certainly not aided by the way the book is organized. Putting the designs themselves up front may exemplify a [End Page 448] praiseworthy sense of priority. Yet this means they are identified only by number - to find out which production they belong to, it is necessary to turn to a separate (and completely independent) section: 'Portfolio Captions.' After this comes the introduction (starting on page 119!), then the actual discussion of each production. To make any sense of the book...


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pp. 447-449
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