Actor-writer Simon Bradbury, a longtime company member of Ontario's Shaw Festival, captures a moment in the life of one of the 20th century's most famous men in a new solo show, Chaplin (The Trials of Charles Spencer Chaplin, Esq.), getting its world premiere Aug 17.
Neil Munro directs the piece, which finds the famous star at a crisis point while making the 1940 film, "The Great Dictator" — the last picture in which his famous Tramp character appeared. Previews began Aug. 10 at the Shaw Fest's intimate three-quarter space, The Court House Theatre, in Niagara-on the-Lake, Ontario.
The play opens in "Charlie Chaplin's private quarters at his Los Angeles studios during production of his first talkie," according to production notes. "Along with the pressures of his personal life, Chaplin struggles with the psychological tension that arises between his two characters in the film: the Jewish barber vs. the German dictator."
The production is a multi-media experience combining soundscape, video and live acting to create a contemporary work that is in keeping with the Shaw's oft-repeated mission: plays about the beginning of the modern world.
The play was first presented as a Shaw Academy workshop in 2000. The fest's mandate was expanded that year to include not just plays written during Shaw's lifetime but works about the period in which he lived, which allows for this unique world premiere (the new mission opens the door for Shaw creating new works, not just reviving plays). David Boechler designs, Kevin Lamotte is lighting designer. Video design is by Simon Clemo and sound is by Trevor Hughes. Performances continue in repertory through Oct. 6.
For information, call (800) 511-SHAW or visit www.shawfest.com
In the summer 2002 issue of Pshaw!, the festival publication, Bradbury explains how Chaplin came about:
"In 1988 I got a phone call from the veteran Stratford actor Don Lewis (you might know him as Lewis Gordon), who had been a colleague of mine in my days at the festival. He informed me that a film was being put together about the life of Charlie Chaplin and suggested that I would be a perfect candidate for the role of the silent film star. He had even gone so far as to track down Sir Richard Attenborough, the director of the project, and get all the details. The noble knight had informed him that they would not be casting for a couple of years so, as Don pointed out, I had more than enough time to prepare.
"I hid the amazement I felt at my colleague's suggestion and, thanking him for the moves he'd made thus far, promised to pursue what appeared to be the impossible. Convinced the chances of them casting a Canadian theatre actor in this part were about as good as a snowman's chance of surviving a Los Angeles heat wave, I nevertheless shuffled off to the library. Once there it was my beholdenness to Don's initiative that prompted me to borrow my first Chaplin flick. Considering the famous iconography of the 'little tramp,' I knew very little of Chaplin's work. This was just before the centenary of his birth and a renewed interest in his films so, as in other areas, most of my knowledge was limited to what I could remember of watching Saturday-morning TV in my youth. Although I could remember delightful intermissions between 'The Beachcombers' and 'Thunderbirds,' I never really appreciated the virtuosity of what I was seeing. Looking at these films in a different light, I soon became engrossed and gobbled them up one after the other.
"Amazed as I was at his physical comedy and the artistry of his filmmaking, only after reading his autobiography and a dozen other books about Chaplin did I begin to realize what a phenomenon he really was. I became fascinated. In the winter of 1990, my agent got a phone call from Attenborough's people telling us to send in any tapes we had. As luck would have it I had a play of mine, a political farce, running at the Factory Theatre Café in Toronto, which had a set consisting of three revolving doors. I rented a facsimile of the tramp costume along with that of a Keystone cop and, together with Bruce McKenzie (a member of my ensemble) I cobbled together a crude 'cops and robbers' scenario. Another colleague filmed the affair, which I promptly edited and shot off with insensate speed to London and the scrutiny of Sir Richard.
"The resultant polite letter was, of course, no surprise, and my disappointment hardly scratched the surface of my frustration at having all this fervor and nowhere to channel it. I knew I would eventually have to hack a play out of all this; the question was when and how. It was not until the early summer of 1999 when, looking back on the bloodiest of centuries, a play about Chaplin began to emerge in my mind. With the help of many of my friends at The Shaw, we did a workshop production of it in 2000 in Christopher's Loft. It is ironic that through the murk of this millennial angst a play about the last century's most renowned comedian should appear; but there it is. Chaplin, I believe, would have understood. Thank you, Don."
— By Kenneth Jones